Tuesday 20 March 2012

Movie Review: A Cry In The Dark (1988)

The infamous story of the baby abducted by a dingo, A Cry In The Dark rises strongly above movie-of-the-week status thanks to a stellar Meryl Streep performance and the calm hand of director Fred Schepisi.

It's 1980, and Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is a Queensland pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. With wife Lindy (Streep), two sons and infant daughter Azaria, the Chamberlains set out for a camping vacation at the monumental Ayers Rock (now known as Uluru) in the Northern Territories. At the camp site Lindy puts Azaria to sleep alone in the tent and joins her husband and other campers for dinner. A cry is heard from the tent; Lindy rushes back to glimpse a dingo with possibly something in its mouth, exiting the tent and running into the wilderness. A massive search uncovers only some of Azaria's tattered and bloodied clothes, and no body.

The Chamberlains make themselves fully and repeatedly available to the media, and gradually a frenzy builds around the case throughout Australia. With the physical evidence seemingly not supporting a dingo attack, suspicion turns towards Lindy, and eventually she is placed on trial for the murder of her daughter Azaria. The Chamberlains have to defend their innocence as the details of the case become fuel for a raging fire of incessant gossip.

Meryl Streep nails the accent and portrays Lindy as a most intriguing, unflappable character. She rarely, if ever, loses her nerve, maintaining her composure in the face of constant public and media scrutiny. Lindy's calm demeanour slips into an abstract coldness, and this ironically encourages those who suspect her of gruesomely slaughtering her daughter. Streep's complex portrayal of the woman at the centre of a national storm provides A Cry In The Dark with a rich centre of gravity, elevating the film to an expedition into the soul of an extraordinary woman staring down seemingly crushing events.

Sam Neill is solid as Michael Chamberlain, a man of deep religious belief whose faith is tested to the limit. Both his understanding of God and his relationship with his wife are frayed and almost severed. Neill wears his worry on his face, sensitively capturing Michael's slide into confusion as he gradually loses touch with what he knows to be true, the weight of doubt overcoming the natural order of his life.

Schepisi presents the story, adapted from the book Evil Angels by John Bryson, in a straightforward and non-sensational manner, tilting the benefit of the doubt towards Lindy's version and questioning the efficacy of the justice system. Schepisi adds panache to the otherwise mostly grim proceedings by injecting regular interludes of gossip, showing the typical reactions, debates, and arguments that gripped Australia around dinner tables at home and over drinks at the watering hole as the "dingo's got my baby" story made its way from family tragedy to courtroom drama.

A Cry In The Dark is a story of justice fumbling its way in pursuit of a shadowy dingo, and trampling all over a family in the process. It's also a showcase for an extraordinary talent, an actress who elevates the material and her fellow performers to heights as captivating as Ayers Rock.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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