Saturday, September 27, 2014

Australian Audient: A Cry in the Dark

This is the latest in my series involving movies made in Australia, watched monthly and considered in word format on this weblog.

"The dingo ate my baby!"

This may be the most famous quotation in all of Australian cinema. And like most famous quotations, it is also quoted incorrectly.

As of this week, I have now finally seen the movie that produces this misquotation.

The actual correct quote, though it's certainly less effective as a standalone line, is "The dingo's got my baby!" or possibly "A dingo's got my baby!" -- I must say I paid less attention to the definitive nature of the article that opens the quotation than its predicate. And the movie is A Cry in the Dark, the 1988 Fred Schepisi film that considers the plight of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, whose baby disappeared on a camping trip to Ayers Rock in 1980. What actually happened became one of the most famous legal trials in Australian history.

Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is a Seventh Day Adventist pastor on holiday at Ayers Rock with his wife Lindy (Meryl Streep), their two young boys and an infant daughter, Azaria. At a campsite and in full view of dozens of witnesses, Azaria goes missing after Lindy heard her cry out. Approaching the tent where she was sleeping, Lindy claims to have seen a dingo wrestling with something inside the tent and then running off into the underbrush. A massive manhunt turns up only the bloodied sleepwear of the baby as the Chamberlains give up all hope that their youngest could still be alive. No one doubts Lindy's account in the first hours after the tragedy, but extensive media coverage of the incident fuels suspicion that her story could be a fabrication -- especially given the generally tame proclivities of dingoes, as well as the likely physical difficulty of carrying out the theft of the child as described. Although an initial inquest finds the Chamberlains innocent of wrongdoing, subsequent evidence that Lindy may have murdered her child puts them on trial, with a life sentence in prison on the line.

One of the reasons public sentiment turned against Lindy was that she didn't seem to display the emotion involved with having lost a child to a dingo attack. Although Schepisi's film depicts her as quite emotional at the time of Azaria's disappearance, it takes the true-to-life approach of documenting Lindy's detachment during subsequent interviews with the media, etc. Bizarrely, Lindy (and to a lesser extent Michael) actually seemed to enjoy being in the spotlight, almost forgetting the tragic reason they were giving interviews to the media. If I were an Australian observing her demeanor in the early 1980s, I imagine I might have turned against her as well.

While Streep plays Lindy in a way that's every inch deserving of one of her many Oscar nominations, it does leave Lindy a bit problematic as a protagonist. She makes these acerbic comments about their media circus lives that sound a lot more like a perturbed sociopath than a grieving mother, and the blank expressions she displays upon hearing various accusations against her seem to belie the possibility of grief. As it is presumed that a mother's bond with her infant child, especially an infant daughter, must be one of the strongest a person can find, it is indeed puzzling why she is not more overwhelmed by outrage at being accused of slitting her daughter's throat -- in fact, at actually decapitating her, as forensic evidence indicates likely happened. While the sequence of events that could have enabled her to carry out the murder seems ridiculous indeed -- it involves her changing outfits and running over to her car to kill the baby, then returning as if nothing had happened -- her mysterious affect leads any number of logical, rational thinkers to this absurd conclusion. Naturally, certain forensic evidence and frustrating gaps in the narrative also contribute to Lindy's possible guilt, but it seems likely they never would have gotten to that point if she had just displayed her grief in a bit more of a customary fashion.

As this case is 35 years old and the outcome is likely known to many if not most people, I will SPOIL a bit here as I describe the problem with the film -- so you can duck out now if you don't know what became of the Chamberlains. The previously alluded to problem with Lindy as a protagonist is that we aren't really rooting for her -- we grow to be as suspicious of her as her fellow Australians. That in itself is not a problem, but it becomes one when the film is structured as an emotional build-up to the Chamberlains' ultimate exoneration. Although I found myself relieved that Lindy's version of events was ultimately endorsed as the official version, it's more because the world is a slightly better place if a mother didn't decide to behead her child on a camping trip. As the parent of a nine-month-old, I can't imagine such a monstrous impulse being possible. But for the purposes of this narrative, I need to feel actual joy that this character is vindicated, because of who she is and how she's personally convinced me of her innocence in the face of an uncaring legal system. Lindy never does that, so her ultimate vindication is a bit hollow.

This is no deterrent to the overall quality of the film, however, which benefits from a tight script that throws us straight into the tragic events and logically strings together the sequence of scenes that followed from them. Schepisi keeps the pace lively, as this does not feel like a two-hour film. I suppose it's not structured all that differently from any legal thriller, but the interspersed scenes of average Australians discussing the case in various public gathering spots add more to the proceedings than such scene often do. It's these frank discussions that most effectively plant the seeds of doubt in a viewer's mind, as all manner of no-bullshit Aussies engage in lively banter about the likelihood of this and the possibility of that. That the case brought some of them to fisticuffs indicates just how central it was to Australian life at the time it was happening, and also speaks charmingly of the earnest passions of this country's people.

One final interesting note about the film, which I didn't know until after I saw it: A Cry in the Dark was released in Australia as Evil Angels. While most title changes are essentially neutral in value, that cannot be said here, as the original title seems like much more of an indictment of Lindy Chamberlain. This poster also seems to find something sinister about her -- something that speaks to the rumors that her daughter was sacrificed as part of a cult ritual mandated by her marginalized Christian sect. Let's see what you think:

Kind of creepy, eh?

I'm wondering if this is why I haven't found the movie at the local video store -- I was looking under the wrong title.

Spring takes full hold of Australia in October, and I have lined up the 2014 film Tracks, about a woman who walks across the outback (!), as my next entry in this series.

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