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Wake in Fright: Ten revives a cult classic, ad breaks and all

For many years, Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 psychological thriller Wake in Fright was considered Australia’s great “lost” film.

The movie, based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, was met with strong reviews at its premiere, but wasn’t a massive commercial success. Somewhere along the line, it became “lost”, and most copies were destroyed by the early 1990s.

It wasn’t until 2009 that a copy of the film was finally given a wide cinematic release, and a release on DVD and Blu-ray. Now it’s available to stream on Stan and a range of other online platforms, and has found its place in the libraries of Australian film buffs everywhere.

Since then, the unforgettable images and characters from the film have re-entered the cultural consciousness so strongly that Channel Ten recently decided a remake of the film was a potential ratings winner.

It seems they were a little off-the-mark in that regard: the first part of their two-episode mini-series premiered last night to just 408,000 viewers. It seems the Wake in Fright brand is still too much of a cult fascination to have demographic-smashing appeal.

The miniseries has received some glowing reviews alongside some more middling ones. It’s true that the remake is a rather bold choice for commercial TV: much like the original film, the miniseries is not driven by great narrative development, but rather by an increasingly claustrophobic and suffocating sense of entrapment.

As in the 1971 film, the protagonist is the young, handsome school teacher John Grant (Sean Keenan in the remake), who is returning home to Sydney after a stint of teaching in the outback. He’s looking forward to reuniting with his girlfriend, but soon after he sets off on the long drive, he hits a kangaroo, severely damaging his car.

He finds himself stuck in the rough fictional mining town of Bundanyabba, with no car and very little money to his name.

Bundanyabba — or “the Yabba” as the locals call it — is the stuff of outback legends; so bizarrely violent and wryly funny that it could almost be a real a place. It could be any number of remote Australian towns, where there’s little to do but main-line beer at the local RSL and play two-up.

John quickly meets the local cop Jock Crawford (David Wenham), who shouts him a few rounds, declaring that he gets all his beer for free when he’s on the job.

John soon ends up seduced by the booze and gambling, and finds increasing trouble with some of the locals. He’s trapped, both literally and figuratively in this violent and constantly surprising place.

Keenan is very good as a deeply flawed protagonist fighting for his life, while there are brilliantly scary supporting performances from the likes of Gary Sweet, Robyn Malcolm, David Wenham, Alex Dimitriades and Anna Samson as a particularly terrifying miner called Mick.

On the one hand, it’s thrilling to see this style of filmmaking unfold on one of our commercial broadcasters; on the other, the biggest obstacle the mini-series faces is the commercial TV medium itself.

Unlike other reviews written of the first episode, this assessment isn’t based on a preview copy, but rather the live broadcast. A live broadcast interrupted by regular commercial breaks.

Director Kriv Stenders struggles to find a way to maintain the tension and mounting helplessness of John’s situation from commercial break to commercial break. It’s stylishly directed, with a clear reverence for the original, and Ten gave the program a long time to settle in before breaking for the first commercial.

But how do you tell this kind of story that needs to snowball forth in one very simple and straight-forward narrative, when you have to stop every ten or so minutes? It’s not a question Stenders seems quite able to answer.

The other major question hanging over the miniseries is a much simpler one: why?

Why remake this story in a fashion that, on the basis of the first episode, doesn’t seem to add all that much to the source material? The answer may well be that the filmmakers wanted to introduce a new generation of Australians — and those of older generations who missed out at its first release — to this fascinating and deeply unsettling story about the places and people at the heart of our nation.

There’s really very little that’s gained by updating the story to present day — it’s set in a place that’s been left behind by the fashions of the time — and no matter how good the performances and attractive the cinematography, it doesn’t really justify its own existence.

It’s still a very enjoyable and unusual piece of television, but if you’ve seen the original it’s not clear why you’d need to see this version.

If you want to know what Wake in Fright is all about, it’s worth checking out Kotcheff’s original: it stands up surprisingly well, and is still a rather bold piece of filmmaking. I don’t think Channel Ten would ever achieve any kind of ratings success by airing Kotcheff’s film, but it should certainly be seen by a broader audience.

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Wake In Fright concludes on Ten on Sunday, October 15 at 8.30pm. The first episode is available to view on Ten Play

17 responses to “Wake in Fright: Ten revives a cult classic, ad breaks and all

  1. A female ex boxer called Mick. A Starfleet female lieutenant called Michael. Can women be strong and empowered as women, or do they actually want to become men?

  2. The 1st episode was painfully slow. That guy is supposed to be a teacher? He does not seem to have 1 active brain cell in his head. I actually started to get a bit frustrated and switched over, as the same question kept running through my head….. how can anyone be that stupid??? The guy is too dumb to exist! Very disappointed after all that hype.

  3. Here we go again. The story is magnificent, the characters spellbinding, the setting and the period essential. So some idiot decides to update it and steal 75% of its mystery and magic, and then play the old Australian director’s trick of ignoring the lesser characters, overlooking narrative and time, and settling for star gazing and tricky camera work. The scenes with Mr Wenham working his magic were like glowing tablets of precious metals and jewels, as were one or two other solos and combinations, but there were too few of them to link together and make a story, thus the episodes became like two patchwork quilts, constructed of a mishmash of good , indifferent, and very bad sequences, in the form of ill matched squares and rectangles. Not enough time or care taken with the essential theatrical components.

  4. Very interested in the comments. When it was first announced, I thought – why would they remake this amazing and brilliant film. Donald Pleasance, I will never forget his brilliant menacing acting, and Chips Rafferty, so superb and believable. I have recorded it, but putting off watching, the thought of all those commercials is awful.
    What will they do with “Picnic At Hanging Rock”? Another classic that should not be remade.

  5. They changed a lot from the book. I stopped watching after a while because what fascinated me about the book was all the unanswered questions and the fact that the locals were plying him with beer to keep him there not to sell him a house or anything else… And the ambiguity of his dealings with the doc. Wake in fright – what do they think that means? That’s the whole thing of it. In the TV show he woke, experienced a slight amount of fright which was then cleared up immediately. If you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of people plying you with booze it’s one thing, the whole tension of the book was adding the possible rape to that; that’s what made it so much more unbearable and (spoilers) what I think really caused him to shoot himself in the head at the end.

  6. Falls well short of the original. You can’t bring the culture of the 70’s into this millennium in a mix n mash style that lacks credibility and the laconic style of the actors back then. Definitely lacks the edge of the seat viewing the original proffered up

  7. how does anybody sit through interminable ads on free to air? Doesn’t everyone record and jump through ad breaks? It’s the only way to watch tv nowadays.

  8. Location wise, I thought this was fantastic- some if the most authentic, but least seen (by outsiders anyway) parts of Broken Hill. On the other hand, I couldn’t warm to any of the characters, with the exception of David Wenham. So much promise…

  9. I gave up after about an hour….way too many adverts that seemed to on be on every 4-5 mins..Honestly it could be the best show in the world bar none but not with so many ads breaking any continuity in what you were watching.

  10. I definitely felt the sense of drama/tension, and the acting was great. I just thought that the present day setting didn’t seem to ring true with the characters and plot though… so I ended up switching off after about an hour. I think the ad breaks contributed to this, as they kind of got in the way of me suspending my disbelief about how the characters were behaving. During the ads, I’d feel kind of a relief from the sense of menace and then start to question ‘why is this guy so stupid and bland?’ ‘why is everyone in the town so snarky to him?’. If the remake was already had extending to a mini-series, why not add another episode or two to make time for more backstory/complexity to the key characters? Then the ad breaks wouldn’t matter, I’d understand the motives of the characters better and be interested enough to keep watching. With so many great drama series available now (on free to air and streaming), I think we expect a lot more from something when it runs for longer than a movie.

  11. This seems a comprehensive and valid assessment: I’d never contemplate watching in on commercial TV.
    My point is a little different, however. Just as with an opera, a film can’t succeed without good dramatic material as its foundation. For that reason, it was dispiriting to see the significant Australian writer, Kenneth Cook, referred to only as a kind of “throw-away” phrase right at the beginning of this article. I’m not asking for the film and the book to be naively compared and contrasted; but it would be good for more substantial acknowledgement of out writers. Likewise, it was regrettable that, in 1971, the producers decided that they needed an English director for this quintessential Australian film.

    1. Stop harping on the old nationalistic whinge. Good theatre, of which film and opera are equal examples, can be produced or directed by any person of any nationality, including any of the many non English speaking varieties, with equal success or failure. A poor Australian director ( of which there are lamentably too many) would have given us a bad film, which Wake in Fright is not.

  12. My wife and I just finished a DVD series marathon so a return to commercial television didn’t seem with this on offer but the commercial breaks were every 3 minutes (not ten) or at least it seemed that way. As good as the show was, we won’t be suffering another hour of commercials inside a two hour show just to watch the conclusion. Free TV (like Pay TV) is not worth it for the ads.

    1. Going into the second hour I started timing the length of TV viewing versus the ad breaks. Despite enjoying the story we called it quits when it got to 5 mins of show broken by 4 mins of ads. How can they seriously expect people to sit through that?

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