From Azaria Chamberlain to Madeleine McCann, the initial search for a missing child and the subsequent investigation have acquired a magnesium-blast intensity in the news media. The public’s obsessive interest in such cases, a mix of fearful hope and intrusive judgement, has translated to narrative television, where shows about the disappearance of young subjects are so common that the British anthology series The Missing starts with a different family but the same premise each season.
One of the impressive elements of the new Scottish–Australian production The Cry, which airs on the ABC from February 3 after a successful British broadcast last October, is how it acknowledges the familiar features of this genre and then subverts them. This drama, describing the disappearance of a couple’s baby from their car in a seaside Victorian town, has all the requisite elements: the shock of discovery, the parents’ ensuing panic, and the grim reality of the police hunt. But at each step there’s also a psychologically fraught examination of key relationships amid the corrosive force of guilt and responsibility.
“He earns the money, he wears the earplugs,” Scottish primary school teacher Joanna ( Jenna Coleman) says of her partner, expatriate Australian political spin doctor Alistair (Ewen Leslie), before they embark on a 30-hour flight to Australia with their three-month-old baby, Noah. The journey is nightmarish, adding to Joanna’s growing fear that she is somehow a bad mother. The guilt that stems from that self-doubt, expertly leveraged by the uneasy sound mix and controlled framing, makes Joanna a figure of both sympathy and suspicion when, later in Australia, no trace of Noah can be found.
The narrative is filleted, mixing points in the timeline and location to create dread and assumptions, each of which is upended in the subsequent explanation. The Australian team of screenwriter Jacquelin Perske (Little Fish, Love My Way), working from Helen FitzGerald’s novel, and director Glendyn Ivin (2015’s Gallipoli and 2018’s Safe Harbour) engineer cliffhanger twists, but their best work is in the concussive ramifications. The lines of the police inquiry, which initially alights on Alistair’s ex-wife, Alexandra (Asher Keddie), with whom he’s about to begin a custody battle for their teenage daughter, are subservient to the emotional rigour of grief and disassociation.
The Cry is a procedural, but the true detective is Joanna, and the case is her relationship with Alistair. Motherhood is a charged experience, a crucible she must endure and a vulnerability he can exploit. With its understanding of how deceptive the dynamics of a relationship between a man and a woman can be, the show is attuned to the times, with both Coleman and Leslie drawing back layers of care to reveal the control beneath. Alistair, whose instinct is to manage the story, is both loving and coercive, a dominant figure whom Joanna eventually sees as one they both created, just like Noah. How did he gain such power, a psychiatrist asks her. “I gave it to him,” she replies.
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