How much further can the high/low-living lawyer Cleaver Greene possibly go? When the third season of ABC’s Rake finished in 2014, Cleaver (Richard Roxburgh) was dangling upside down, high above Sydney, from a rope attached to a hot air balloon.
It was the perfect place to leave this magnificently whimsical character, who always seemed to be dangling by the thinnest of threads somewhere between heaven and earth. At that point there was a very real chance that the series wouldn’t return, so he really had to go out with a bang.
But two years later the ABC has seen fit to bring the series back, and things pick up exactly where they left off: with Cleaver still hanging.
Most writers would move on as quickly as possible from a scenario as absurd as the balloon one, but Peter Duncan and Andrew Knight embrace the challenge, seeing exactly where that ride will take Cleaver. He eventually lands at the feet of a dangerous old associate who he hasn’t had contact with for many, many years.
From there, Cleaver quickly finds his life under threat and is forced into hiding in a sleepy rural town. It requires all the strength he can muster to fit into this new home, particularly when his beloved Sydney has become a hotbed of extraordinary corruption, seeing lawyers, judges and politicians from all sides fighting to keep their names out of the mud.
The series is beautifully plotted, and there’s a real sense of momentum as the characters are pushed into new and testing situations. There’s some nice ABC-bashing in there, a decent satire of corruption, and even a hilariously misjudged surprise party for Cleaver. And although the dialogue occasionally lacks the zing of the first three seasons, the performances are so charismatic you hardly notice.
There’s a brilliant appearance from John Waters, who seems perfectly at home as a charming but deadly crime figure, and Miriam Margolyes all but steals the show as a sweet and softly-spoken, but undeniably ruthless, defence lawyer. It’s a devilish performance which makes you wonder what terror she might have unleashed as Harry Potter’s nightmare of a professor, Dolores Umbridge (if she hadn’t already been playing Professor Sprout in the film series).
Rake has always been blessed with four very different, but equally tough women in supporting roles — Adrienne Pickering as Missy, Danielle Cormack as Scarlet, Caroline Brazier as Wendy, and Kate Box as Nicole — and they’re all in top form again.
But it’s Roxburgh who is the driving force of the series. There’s no shortage of self-destructive, intelligent, witty anti-heroes on our TV screens, but there’s so much warmth and tenacity in Roxburgh’s performance it continues to feel fresh.
NOTE: this review is based on the first four episodes of the fourth series, which were available for preview at the time of writing