August 2010

Arts & Letters

Connective tissue

By Delia Falconer
‘Tangle’ (Season Two) and ‘Spirited’

All the bullies I remember from school had Ben Mendelsohn’s build: heavy-legged, thick-armed and slightly soft around the middle. Or perhaps it only seems that way because the actor played Tangle’s bully, sociopathic builder Vince Kovac, so well. Mendelsohn’s portrayal of a womanising liar was especially disturbing because it combined the wilful physicality of a sturdy five-year-old with the hard eyes and slack face of a man who has lived forty-something years recklessly. This made the sex scenes in which Vince went about his business irksomely compelling to watch – wrong at a deeper level than his infidelity to his wife, Ally (Justine Clarke).

Tipping the universe off its axis seemed to be the point of last year’s first season of Tangle (Showcase’s made-for-cable series), which positioned itself as a coldly lit alternative to the warmer family dysfunction of the Foxtel hit Love My Way (2005–07). With its portentously plinking piano score, slow pace and blue tones, the series seemed to owe less of a debt to other Australian television series than to our recent films, especially Lantana (2001). Set in the Yarra-side suburbs of Kew and Hawthorn, it did the same thing for the twisting, brown river and clustered private schools of Melbourne’s inner east as Lantana did for Sydney’s Pittwater. Bush reaches not usually associated with the tourist versions of each city became metaphors for the dark currents running beneath the apparent comforts of Australian suburban life.

Tangle also owed a debt to the body in Lantana’s opening credits, a woman’s corpse caught in the branches of that thorny, feral plant. Season one opened with a jogger in Kew’s Studley Park passing Kovac, running in the opposite direction, before slipping to his death round a wooded bend. His body was found the next day by Max, the teenage son of Victorian state politician Tim Williams (Joel Tobeck) and uptight psychologist Christine (Catherine McClements) – although we quickly learned that Max’s birth mother was Ally’s wild sister, Nat (Kat Stewart), now back in Melbourne after ten years as a minor TV-celebrity in London. Max, with his soft looks and longish brown hair, was the sensitive boy among his private-school peer group. But what he did next was abhorrent. He told only his friends, Romeo (Vince and Ally’s son, and a bully in formation himself) and the girl he fancied. Returning over days to the body, local teenagers photographed it and cut off one of its fingers; they also partied in the man’s empty house. If caught, they agreed, they would say he was a paedophile.

So far, so dark. But Tangle was afflicted by Australia’s almost Tourette-like compulsion to add a layer of whimsey to our domestic dramas. Poor Justine Clarke, a warm and watchable actress, struggled to find authenticity in a character of such clichéd domesticity; Ally communicates, in her loneliness, with an orbiting Russian cosmonaut through the ham radio in her backyard. Each episode opened with Ally’s Grey’s Anatomy-style voice-over, freighted with sweet scientific metaphors for life’s entanglements. Other set pieces felt as if they had been borrowed from blockbuster rom-coms such as Love Actually (2003) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). The season’s end seemed particularly influenced by the cheesy denouements of both those films, as Vince and Ally’s younger child, Gigi, stepped into the coveted role of singing pig in her school’s musical version of Animal Farm, while her father and Ally’s long-term suitor, Gabriel (Matt Day), duked it out in the playground outside.

In fact, the whole season was plagued by a sense that it had been written with the aim of characters hitting certain dramatic ‘marks’, without connective emotional tissue being provided. The teens, especially, with their iPods and Wiis, seemed less like real, smart kids than the results of an anxious focus group on desensitised, technology-focused youth.

But Tangle also got some things very right. Using real, identified locations, it showed the pleasure Melbourne takes in its dense urbanness. The characters inhabited its shopping strips below old Victorian railway overpasses, dark city bars and funky boatshed ramps in a way that was entirely convincing. The camera always loves Kat Stewart: in Tangle, she is all nerve and teeth, like a well-groomed horse about to take a jump. But it is Joel Tobeck, playing a state government minister, with compact blue-eyed ambition, who is the revelation of the series. I had not seen Tobeck before, and would remember if I had. He has an astonishingly naked face: so pink, so conflicted between tautness and slutty ripeness that watching him is an almost pervy pleasure.

Then there was Mendelsohn. Given that he provided season one with much of its momentum, the choice to open season two with Vince dead seemed a risky move (he has been struck, fittingly, by a car, while groping in a drain for a dropped $50-note). Yet without him Tangle is, surprisingly, more engrossing. It is now truly an ensemble piece, as the characters deal with the emotional fallout. Brittle Nat tries to be more of a maternal figure. Don Hany makes a welcome appearance as political adviser to Tim Williams, while he tilts at the premier’s position. Full mouthed, hot eyed and loose limbed, he is a credible temptation for McClements’ Christine, although her deadpan acting, so much more suited to action dramas, flattens the erotic tension. Vince’s estranged ex-crim brother (Kick Gurry) – arriving for the funeral – brings a presence that is watchful and interesting.

Mercifully, the writers have dispensed with Ally’s ham radio and voice-over. Now, instead of being the weak link in Tangle, Clarke – her girlish features softening beautifully into middle age – is its moving focus, as she struggles with her new social and sexual status as a widow. There is a marvellous moment, a few episodes in, where she is bitten by an amorous homeless man while serving lunch at her church: this is real human drama and wonderfully surprising.

Spirited, on Foxtel’s W channel, is all cuteness and no surprises. Claudia Karvan plays to type (The Secret Life of Us, Love My Way) as another wound-up character whose every tight gesture suggests she still awaits her sensual awakening. As the series opens, Suzy Darling, an awkward dentist, leaves her insensitive clot of a husband, Steve (Rodger Corser), and moves her children into the apartment she has bought above her practice. The old penthouse suite of a Sebel Townhouse-style Sydney hotel, it is haunted by the ghost of the 1980s rocker Henry Mallett. Described by its makers as The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) meets The Odd Couple (1968), the show’s closer relative is the Rik Mayall vehicle Drop Dead Fred (1991), in which a repressed woman’s imaginary childhood friend returns to wreak havoc on her life.

But there is no havoc, and no charismatic star to take the thin bones of the scenario and bend them to their will. British import, Matt King, who played crack-addicted Super Hans in British sitcom Peep Show (2003), has the hectoring intonations of a tired Ben Elton, but none of the punk energy that might just have made the series quicken.

The show’s central premise, natch, is that Mallett will be the true love of Suzy’s life. Yet there was more of a heavy-breathing undertone to The Ghost and Mrs Muir (even as a child, I could sense the unresolved sexual tension thrumming) than to this limp series, whose debut has been delayed, perhaps with justifiable nervousness, from earlier this year. Karvan, her tomboy’s beauty growing ever more honed since her childhood debut in High Tide (1987), has a vulnerable gameness about her as an actress that usually clutches at the heart; here, though, behind her specs, she is all tics and twitches.

Not that she has much to work with, given character is so subsumed by clumsy concept. As a child Suzy was a champion gymnast. Arriving in her new flat, she takes possession of it by performing a floor routine, but falls and knocks out a tooth. A dentist with a missing tooth – to make sure we get the joke, Steve’s insistence on Suzy smiling for dinner guests triggers her departure. Within three episodes, Steve parks a Shetland pony on her balcony; her sister Jonquil, a social worker, stages a cringingly unfunny intervention into her hallucinations; and her son, Elvis, although the series makes no point of this, speaks knowingly to his mother with an odd English accent. (Is he the spiritual love child of Mallett?)

It is hard to believe that this is the same team that made the immensely likeable Love My Way. Perhaps they told themselves that, in the wake of True Blood (2008), magic realist TV is the flavour of the month these days. But, as Tangle has shown, in abandoning the gimmicks of season one, characterisation drives everything else. As his messy business and romantic affairs unwind, dead Vince Kovac still haunts the characters of Tangle – and he has more presence off-screen than Spirited’s Matt King has on. Could Mendelsohn, as Mallett, have revived this series? It’s doubtful, but I might pay to see him try.

Delia Falconer
Delia Falconer is a novelist, journalist and non-fiction writer. She is the editor of The Best Australian Stories 2008 and 2009. Her books include The Service of Clouds, The Penguin Book of the Road and Sydney.

Justine Clark (Ally) with Lincoln Younes (Romeo) and Eva Lazzaro (Gigi) in a scene from 'Tangle'.
Cover: August 2010

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