May 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Cloudstreet’ By Matthew Saville

By MJ Hyland

Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is a compassionate masterpiece, which is to Australians what George Orwell’s 1984 is to the English and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird is to Americans. But Matthew Saville’s six-hour miniseries doesn’t come close to conjuring the glorious guts of Winton’s epic. Only the final part of the series is artful and savvy.

Most of the novel’s deft magic is only thinly realised in what is often rushed and superficial summary. Any adaptation of Winton will necessarily lose most of the devastating psychological depth of his art. And so, in parts one and two, we see flimsy highlights: two whacky families – the Pickles and the Lambs – and the rough ’n’ tumble trouble they endure. But, in part three, when the child actors are gone and the adult actors seem less imprisoned by having to speak ‘strine’, Winton’s power is, at last, properly felt in several first-class scenes.

Geoff Morrell mostly plays Lester Lamb as effete and luckless, a gormless halfwit with little or no agency. Lester’s vaudeville act is pared back to a few moments of messing with a banjo and a ventriloquist’s dummy. We see little of his hurt at the loss of his son, Quick (Todd Lasance) – little of his contemplation of “what it was he’d done to turn Quick away”. Stephen Curry’s Sam Pickles is another unstable rendering: he seems in one scene to be daft and fey, and in another, wise and strong.

Kerry Fox’s Oriel Lamb is also bluntly drawn. In the book, we see a sad, mean, perverted, complicated, selfish, half-mad but beautiful character. Here, she’s characterised as a ham-fisted, grotesque exaggeration of a God-botherer – fussy and busy and drab. It’s not until part three that we see her being half as fascinating as Winton made her; when, at last, Fox plays a long sad scene, it’s very moving stuff.

In Winton’s book, “Dolly [Pickles] is shaky and fragile.” It might not have been a good idea to show more guttural alcoholic agony on TV but neither is it good enough to have Dolly (Essie Davis) look so healthy and lovely. We don’t see Dolly getting “old and puffy”. Davis looks too much like a woman who’s been at the gym all week and at the hairdressing salon all afternoon. That is, right up until late in part three when we see her without make-up, without perfect hair and skin and teeth, and then we see her really act.

Winton’s Cloudstreet is too big and too messy – too dependent on the interior – to work on screen. The miniseries doesn’t anywhere near achieve the same kind of intelligent enactment of human strife and joy. The dialogue is good, which is no surprise, since the script was co-written by Winton. But the challenge, I think, was insurmountable. Like most poetic and sprawling masterpieces, the power of the book is stubbornly lodged in the sentence, the accretion of thousands of perfect details, the smartness of the words, and the writer’s careful genius.

MJ Hyland
MJ Hyland is an award-winning novelist. Her books include How Light Gets In, the 2006 Man Booker-shortlisted Carry Me Down and This is How. @mj_hyland

'Cloudstreet', By Matthew Saville (director),Screening in three parts on Showtime, from 22 May
Cover: May 2011
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