September 2019

Noted

‘Lambs of God’

By Craig Mathieson

Essie Davis in Foxtel's ‘Lambs of God’

Director Jeffrey Walker blends ripe melodrama and Gothic thriller in his TV series about three wayward nuns

The crumbling monastery that is the setting for Lambs of God (Foxtel), a rich and dexterous new Australian limited series, is many things. At first glance the cliffside 19th-century construction is a refuge for the remnants of Sisters of St Agnes, an enclosed order forgotten by the outside world that has dwindled to just three nuns. But the cloistered, near medieval isolation is also an incubator, revealing what faith can be when a structure evolves without a male hierarchy. When these women invoke the “mother of mercy”, it’s a radical act of spiritual self-sufficiency.

Sister Iphigenia (Essie Davis), Sister Margarita (Ann Dowd) and Sister Carla (Jessica Barden) make sacrificial offerings and see the spirits of their former sistren in the lambs they raise – they haven’t so much revoked Catholic doctrine as let it slip away. The show itself has an equally fluid approach, as the tone moves between Gothic horror and ripe melodrama, arcane thriller and black comedy. Adapted by Sarah Lambert from Marele Day’s 1997 novel, Lambs of God has a wayward momentum and impulsive curiosity that is rare on Australian television.

Change arrives in the form of Father Ignatius (Sam Reid), an officious interloper despatched by a scheming bishop (John Bell) looking to maximise his property portfolio. The priest provides both context – it is 1999, the place is somewhere just off the coast of England – and an adversary, with his attempts to control the women turned around when they swiftly make him their captive. Even tied up, his (shirt-free) presence unsettles the trio, setting off survival schemes and flashbacks, often introduced by repurposed fairytales Iphigenia shares, as well as heretical acts. A teenager with no experience of men or the outside world, Carla treats Ignatius as a strange new accomplice.

Director Jeffrey Walker is a protean Australian filmmaker who has helmed romantic comedies (Ali’s Wedding) and episodes of American sitcoms (Modern Family), and his eclectic eye is well-suited to this idiosyncratic material. The turns in mood and motivation are bracing as opposed to jarring, and Walker is partnered by the veteran cinematographer Donald McAlpine (My Brilliant Career, Moulin Rouge!). The rugged landscape carries echoes of Victorian-era literature, while the candlelit interiors at night create an intimate existence untethered by outside orthodoxy.

Even as it adds Damon Herriman, playing the menacing priest who follows Ignatius’s trail, Lambs of God tumbles towards a conclusion that is inelegant but nonetheless fitting. With its focus on the multitudes that female lives can contain and its fascination with spirituality as a form of feminist solidarity, this is wonderfully wild storytelling, spread over just four episodes, that wasn’t aimed at a narrow target audience – which might be why it’s been so well received internationally. Could Australian television do with more of the same? Amen.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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