Australian Arts

Call of the wild

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

It’s fascinating to hear that Warwick Thornton––who took the world by storm some years ago with that knockout indigenous film Samson and Delilah––is to make a film with Cate Blanchett and that the collaboration was her initiative. She’s to play a nun who sticks up for aboriginal kids in some oppressive institution. It sounds like a project made in heaven. Thornton directs like an angel, and is one of those directors who is also a great cinematographer in a country famed for such masters of visual idiom as John Seale. Thornton is a filmmaker with an eye in the most commanding and seductive sense.

This is written all over Mystery Road, the indigenous crime series which has just brought out a prequel Mystery Road: Origin in which Mark Coles Smith plays Jay Swan the aboriginal detective famously played by Aaron Pedersen. Thornton directed the last two episodes of season 2 of this scarifying depiction of drug trafficking, murderous elders, and cops dirty and clean, in which Sofia Helin (from The Bridge) stumbles upon bones more recent than she would like.

The plot is wild beyond any notion of probability but Thornton handles the horror and the heartbreak with the breathtaking sureness of touch of a master painter who is dramatic to his fingertips. This is television which recreates the very idea of the conceivable, almost the way Elizabethan drama did. The human face of what happens to Aaron Pedersen, his estranged wife Tasma Walton, and his police partner Jada Alberts, is in constant tension. The mastery of Thornton’s execution is aided by fellow director Wayne Blair but with a formal beauty that throws away the rule book.


Cate Blanchett clearly knows what she’s doing with this indigenous master who can treat whatever bush brutalities as his paintbox. It will also be fascinating to see what Cate Blanchett decides to do on stage. It is a while now since she played Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire under Liv Ullmann’s direction, the woman who had been the muse and partner of one of the supreme dramatists of the cinema, Ingmar Bergman. Will she play the great Chekhov leads for a mature woman like Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard or Arkadina in The Seagull? Will she decide to play what is arguably the supreme role for a woman in the dramatic canon, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra? It’s the role Glenda Jackson played for that miracle maker of a director Peter Brook who died the other week and which Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave all took as the mountain they would climb. The woman with the highest reputation in the role –– the equivalent of John Gielgud’s Hamlet –– was Dame Peggy Ashcroft who you can see as Mrs. Moore in David Lean’s film of A Passage to India acting with that other Mystery Road veteran, Judy Davis.

The show which dazzled the West End more than any other in recent times was Prima Facie, the one-hander which starred Jodie Comer from Killing Eve where she summons up a world of Slavonic brutality in her depiction of one of the most sparkling and wicked characters ever to make a television screen the palette for her iniquity. It must have been astonishing for Australian playwright Suzie Miller to discover that she had written the runaway hit of the resurgent London theatre. Yes, she had been mentored by Edward Albee and the backing of the man who had written Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a bit like the backing of the god of drama. It’s interesting too that Virginia Woolf lives in the popular imagination more than any play in the mid-century American dramatic renaissance, other than Streetcar, because Mike Nichols’ film bears comparison with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh as Stanley and Blanche in the famous Elia Kazan film.

Leigh is one of the many actresses including Greta Garbo to do Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and not long after the National Theatre Live broadcast of Prima Facie from July 23 at independent cinemas like Melbourne’s Nova, Anna K, Suzie Miller’s free-associating retake of that story is on at Melbourne’s Malthouse from August 12. Then from October 29, the Sydney Theatre Company is showing another one of her one handers, RBG: Of Many One, which is focused on legal legend Ruth Bader Ginsberg, which will have added topicality given the storm that has overtaken the US in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

It’s a dream run for an Australian playwright and associates with Blanchett’s passion to work with Warwick Thornton. It always seemed a pity that she didn’t do the adaptation of Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage which Joanna Murray-Smith did for the great English director Trevor Nunn. The free adaptation of the Bergman with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaacs has got him at least a nomination for an Emmy and so too with Australia’s Murray Bartlett for White Lotus, Toni Collette for The Staircase and Sarah Snook for Succession. Are Snook and Rose Byrne the most notable Australian actresses to follow in the wake of Blanchett? Byrne who played Euripides’ Medea in New York just before Covid hit was staggering in Physical which has a new series.

Michael Sheen is unlikely to claim he is the greatest Welsh actor since Burton given the existence of Anthony Hopkins but he was entirely credible as David Frost in Frost/Nixon and Tony Blair in that jewel in Stephen Frears’ crown The Queen. From December 27 he can be seen in the newly refurbished Concert Hall at Sydney’s Opera House as Salieri that deep-dyed villain in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. The role of Salieri was created by the great Paul Scofield, Burton’s rival, who acted like a god with Katherine Hepburn in Tony Richardson’s film of Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance.

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