The Secret River review (ABC TV)

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Kate Grenville’s acclaimed 2005 novel The Secret River has finally made it to the small screen in this inevitable telemovie which captures the heart of the tale of William (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Sal Thornhill (Sarah Snook): an English convict transported to Australia in 1806 for theft and his tough-as-nails wife, who follows him, with kids in tow, to the other side of the world.

The Thornhills never had an easy time back in England and their early days in the Sydney colony are full of hardship. But after they’re slightly more settled, Will decides to make a small corner of this part of the world his own, claiming a patch of land up the Hawkesbury river.

Of course, the land is already inhabited by a group of indigenous people, and it’s that relationship between the people who have just had their home invaded, and the family who believes they’ve finally found freedom and their own home, which is at the crux of Grenville’s novel. They largely manage to coexist peacefully at first — even though the Thornhills’ western concept of ownership doesn’t make any sense to the indigenous people — but things soon enough take a bloody turn for the worst when the small group of Hawkesbury settlers decide they’ve had enough of dealing with the locals.

This two-part telemovie is directed with great sensitivity by Daina Reid, who works with creeping silences and often sparse dialogue to slowly, gently build tension and relationships. It also looks absolutely glorious — there’s an extraordinary harmony to the land which will soon be destroyed by violence and ambition.

The screenplay, by Jan Sardi and Mac Gudgeon, does away with most of Grenville’s material covering the Thornhill’s life back home and kicks off the moment they arrive on the shores of Sydney. Unfortunately, the first 90-minute block is a little slow, in terms of narrative development. It establishes all you need for the dramatic final chapter, but there’s a fair chance some of the audience will drop off before they get to the meatiest part of the story.

Grenville’s imagining of what may have happened when a family like the Thornhills and the local indigenous people came into contact is vivid and vividly realised by this adaptation.

It is absolutely uncompromising in its depiction of the kind of massacres upon which our nation was built. The brutality and destruction is horrifying, and Cohen-Jackson’s superb performance as Will goes a long way to shining new emotional light on the conflict. He’s matched by Snook, who has a relentless intensity which is rarely seen on the small screen, as well as fine supporting performances from Lachy Hulme, Tim Minchin as the villainous Smasher Sullivan, and Trevor Jamieson as Greybeard. Young actor Rory Potter, who appeared in the stage adaptation of the book, shines brightly as Willie, alongside Finn Scicluna-O’Prey as his younger brother.

Grenville tells the story entirely through the Thornhills’ eyes — how their relationship with the land and its original inhabitants affects and traumatises the family. It often feels a shame that we don’t hear at least parts of this story from the indigenous perspective — Andrew Bovell’s 2013 stage adaptation for the Sydney Theatre Company was slightly more successful in this regard. But history is written by the victors; even inquisitive, critical and compassionate ones like Grenville.

[box]The Secret River begins Sunday, June 14 on ABC TV.[/box]

4 responses to “The Secret River review (ABC TV)

  1. I hope this is better than the recent crop of Gallipoli TV series, which pretty much all sucked.

    Judging by the trailer, The Secret River appears to consist of a lot of people shouting at each other and looking glum.

    “Unfortunately, the first 90-minute block is a little slow, in terms of narrative development.” You mean nothing actually happens. I love it when Australian journalists use finely-wrought euphemisms to slag off bad TV…

  2. This telemovie was excellent – it shatters the euphemisms such as “settled” used to describe what happened when the British arrived in Australia.

  3. This telemovie is subtle, engrossing, beautiful to look at and makes complete emotional sense. The first part is not slow – it depicts the migrant experience and presents multiple perspectives so the viewer can understand the shadings and shiftings of viewpoint. This makes the second part work because the viewer sees the ethical dilemma as real and visceral. Does Thornhill protect his family or does he take a huge chance that would place him outside of his own society and expectations? The scenario depicted shows why Australia developed the way it did. A tragedy that realistically could not have been avoided.

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