Christos Tsiolkas’s 2013 novel Barracuda is a vivid and unassumingly incisive examination of class, sexuality and race in contemporary Australia, told through the eyes of a young swimmer on the path to Olympic gold. The new TV series based on the book captures its spirit brilliantly.
As the 16-year-old son of Greek and Scottish working class parents, Danny Kelly (Elias Anton) wins a sporting scholarship to one of Australia’s most prestigious private boys schools. At first, he’s shunned and hated by the wealthy and predominately white student base, and a bitter split forms between Danny and the other students. But the tables turn when he brings sporting glory to the school through his hard work in the swimming pool. (Australians will forgive a sporting champion just about anything.)
Soon enough, Danny’s disdain for the school’s Golden Boy of swimming Martin Taylor turns into a difficult but profound friendship, and he’s welcomed into the wealthy, sophisticated Taylor clan.
But if Danny wants to hold onto this charmed position, he’s going to have to hold onto his sporting prowess and be “the best” no matter what it costs him or his family.
This is the second ABC adaptation of a Christos Tsiolkas novel after the successful and widely acclaimed 2011 series based on The Slap.
While The Slap begins with the event which immediately reveals the fault-lines underlying the fragile ecosystem of Australian suburbia, Barracuda takes its time in building to a crisis point. There are divisions of class and ethnicity right from the start, but there are other pressures which eventually shatter the relationship between Danny and the Taylor family.
This four-part series was written by Blake Ayshford and Belinda Chayko, who deviate quite a lot from the plot laid down by Tsiolkas (who serves as associate producer on the series). The book leaps back and forth between three different timelines, but the TV series is entirely linear and focused on Danny’s teen years.
As a TV series, Barracuda doesn’t have quite as many of the melodramatic notes and sudden plot shifts that made The Slap so compelling. But it has a focus and a surprisingly gentle playing quality which allows it to dig even deeper into the way these characters are shaped by the structures around them.
Robert Connolly directs the full series with a sense of tragic inevitability and tension. He also manages to find a distinctive visual and musical style for the all important race scenes.
Barracuda is also blessed with several excellent performances.
Rachel Griffiths has perhaps the most difficult task as the private school mother Samantha Taylor; she has to represent an entire culture of hardened WASPish snobbery without crossing into caricature. It’s a gorgeously measured and observed performance, and she has a particularly memorable exchange with Helen Morse, who makes a brief appearance as the Queen of the WASPs.
Griffiths’ frostiness is offset beautifully by the warmth of Victoria Haralabidou as Danny’s mother and Matt Nable as his coach.
The young Elias Anton (who is currently completing his VCE) holds the series together as Danny — he begins with a quiet drive to be “the best”, which soon evolves into a dangerous and destructive single-mindedness. It’s an impressive TV debut, as is Benjamin Kindon’s performance as Martin.
While the series doesn’t capture Danny’s struggle for redemption with the same nuance as the novel, and leans on cliches to get across the finish line, it’s beautifully produced and has its share of profound moments which won’t be easily forgotten.
The greatest of those moments comes on the night of the Sydney 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremony. It’s easy to believe that night represented a kind of peak of this nation’s spirit. The country seemed generally peaceful, prosperous, fair and open (this was before the Children Overboard affair changed our relationship with refugees and immigrants permanently).
But the night turns out to be the low point of Danny’s life. He’s an Australian — like many — built up to play a role which turns out to be not available to him. What can he do once he’s fallen under the relentless and unstoppable train which carries this nation’s dreams?