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Australian miniseries Cloudstreet leaves viewers confused.

DVD Review: Cloudstreet

CloudstreetTim Winton’s award-winning novel and the six episode miniseries developed from it, is the story of two working class Australian families forced by circumstances to live together in a large dilapidated house in the Perth of the middle of the 20th century. The series covers approximately 20 years. The two families couldn’t be more opposite. The Pickles are grasshoppers; the Lambs are ants. The Lambs are industrious and practical; the Pickles carefree, careless wastrels. The Lambs believe in family, the Pickles are at each other’s throats. The Lambs get by and even prosper, the Pickles decay.

Yet despite their differences, and unlikely as it might be, they manage over the years not only to live together but to find compassion and even respect for each other. It is an uplifting story of human endurance in the face of adversity. The six episode, 2011 miniseries, was shot on location in Western Australia.  It is now available, along with a bonus disc of back stage features, in a three DVD set from Acorn Media.

As a viewer unfamiliar with the novel, I must admit that I found a good bit of the plot adapted by Winton himself, along with Ellen Fontana, confusing, at least through the first few episodes. Character motivations are not always clear. Moreover, there is a magical strain running through the narrative and it takes some time to recognize what is going on with things like talking pigs, a bird that evacuates coins, and a house that seems to cry and moan. I’m not sure the magical elements really come into focus until almost the end of the series, if then. Indeed there are elements like a mysterious Aborigine who appears over and over again and seems to have some issues with the house at Cloud Street that I still don’t understand. Presumably those who have read the novel have a better handle on what it is all about.

Directed by Matthew Saville, the series has some excellent performances from its Australian cast. Stephen Curry is the hapless Sam Pickles, a luckless gambler who has lost the fingers from one of his hands in an accident. Essie Davis plays his unhappy, promiscuous wife, Dolly, and Emma Booth, the older version of their sensitive daughter, Rose. Kerry Fox is the no nonsense matriarch of the Lamb family, Oriel and Geoff Morrell is her husband, Lester. Morrell describes his character as a kind of saintly fool. There are times when the script doesn’t quite make the reasons for a character’s actions clear, but the performances are emotionally compelling in spite of that. One caveat, accents, especially Curry’s, can be a problem.

Bonus material includes a long feature on adapting the novel as well as short segments on the film’s design, music, and sound. There is also commentary on each of the major characters from the actors. Although, some of the interview footage is repeated in different segments, much of the material is illuminating and does help to explain some of the things one may not understand watching the miniseries, as well as some of the things one won’t even know that they don’t understand.

While the miniseries has its moments, there are for instance some stunning visual effects as well as some truly dramatic moments, as is often the case it doesn’t quite live up to the novel’s reputation. Sometimes it is best just to read the book.

About Jack Goodstein

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