DVD Review: Cloudstreet
What do Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and the late Heath Ledger have in common? Their all part of the seemingly endless supply of talented actors who were born and started their careers in Australia. For such a small and seemingly isolated part of the world they have a remarkably thriving film and television industry. It hasn't hurt to have their neighbour New Zealand being home to some of the biggest film productions of the past decade. But Australia was doing well enough on its own prior to Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Still, all we in North America usually see are Australia's exports at work in productions over here. The opportunities to see any of the movies or television series made for local consumption are slim. Thankfully Acorn Media has expanded beyond packaging programming only from Great Britain. Recent years have seen some of the better programming from Canadian television show up in their catalogues, and now we're beginning to see shows from Australia. Cloudstreet, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by best selling Australian author Tim Winton was released in the fall of 2012 on DVD in a three disc package. The first two discs contained all six episodes of the original television series while the third is special features.
The story follows the fortunes of two families, the Pickles and the Lambs, over the course of more then a decade. Both families have been plagued by bad luck and poor decisions which at the beginning of the series find them in desperate straights. Things start to look a little better for the Pickles when husband Sam (Stephen Curry inherits a house and some money from his older brother. Number One Cloudstreet has been empty for a while and has its own history of misfortune which we discover over the course of the series, but initially it looks to be an upturn in the Pickles' family fortunes. However when Sam loses the money betting on horses the family is left in almost as dire straights as before they took over the house.
In an effort to help cover their expenses Sam decides to rent out half the house. The Lambs have been having their own run of bad luck. Their middle boy, Fish, had almost drowned, and although they managed to bring him back from the dead, the experience left him brain damaged. Unable to make a go of it farming because of drought they find themselves homeless and living out of their car until they answer the Pickles' advertisement for tenants. To the astonishment of their landlords the Lambs decide to operate a grocery/general store out of their half of the house as a way of making ends meet and turn their half of the grounds into a small farm.
The first two episodes are primarily spent introducing us to the characters who will dominate the rest of the series. Oriel (Kerry Fox and Lester Lamb (Geoff Morrell and their six children make for a crowded and noisy house when combined with Sam and Dolly Pickles (Essie Davis and their three children. Aside from the friction created by so many people living in one large ramshackle house, the Lamb's protestant work ethic lifestyle doesn't blend well with the Pickles more relaxed attitudes towards work. While Sam manages to land a job working at the Royal Mint, Dolly prefers to spend her days sleeping and her nights drinking and carousing in bars. A house full of people who rise at the crack of dawn doesn't mix well with her lifestyle.
Aside from the two families, there's another character who makes its presence felt, the house itself. While its been empty for a while, at one point it was some sort of boarding school for young Aboriginal girls. The comment you hear from the lawyer who gives Sam the deed to the place is, the previous owner had tried to "civilize" them, but it hadn't worked out. There's some dirty secret hidden in the walls of the house, and one room in particular seems to be particularly haunted. It sits empty on the top floor of the house its only occupant an old upright piano left over from the attempts at "civilizing" and what appears to be the ghosts of two young girls who lived there. For something drives Fish Lamb to bang at the piano and moan and cry as if he's feeling the pain the room remembers.
This rather fantastic device of the house being a living breathing thing is reflected in the cinematography of the show. At times the camera operates so we see the scene as if we were a specific character as the angle the camera shoots at reflects his or her perspective. Or there is one scene in which the child Fish and his older brother Quick are travelling in a row boat at night. Seeing the stars reflected in the water Fish pictures them travelling through the night sky and then the boat is floating among the stars. It's a beautiful, almost surreal scene.
It's these elements, and the special effects used to animate the house on occasion to help reflect the emotional depth of the action on screen, which help prevent the story from becoming an exercise in sentimentality. Far too many of these type of programs, where we follow the fortunes of a family, or in this case two families, end up being soap operas which become tedious to watch after one or two episodes. In this case the combination of filming techniques and special effects with superlative performances from every member of the cast and a gritty story ensures it never cross the line over into the mawkishness of a soap opera.
As mentioned earlier the third disc in the set is a collection of bonus materials connected to the television show. While the special features range from what went into the show's making to a copy of the preview used on television to promote the series and are interesting enough, they still only serve to compliment what's on the rest of the discs in the package. As far as this type of short termed series goes, this is one of the best I've ever seen. If you are able to have the opportunity of buying a copy of the DVD set or seeing Cloudstreet in any manner, jump at the chance, you won't regret it.
(Article first published as DVD Review: Cloudstreet on Blogcritics.)