November 2021

Noted

‘New Gold Mountain’

By Craig Mathieson
SBS’s Australian goldfields series looks beyond colonial orthodoxies to tell the neglected stories

In the first shot of this accomplished Australian limited series, the camera rotates 180 degrees, so that the ground moves and your perspective shifts. It is a graceful signal that New Gold Mountain, set on the Ballarat goldfields in 1857, intends to look beyond colonial orthodoxies. The dynamic in this period drama is one of organisations jostling for control, and of individuals who struggle to abide by what is demanded of them. At first glance the corseted dresses and troopers’ tunics look familiar, but the stories wound together by the plot come from neglected sources.

As charted by creator Peter Cox, the pacing of the series is consistently brisk but its focus is revisionist. Neither Leung Wei Shing (Yoson An) nor Belle Roberts (Alyssa Sutherland) has conventional access to the levers of British rule: to the authorities he is the “head man” of the thousands of Chinese miners, but also the lieutenant of the traditional mainland crime syndicate that controls their segregated settlement, while she is a widow in need of advertisers and headlines for her failing newspaper. The discovery of a white woman’s body, dressed in bloodied Chinese clothing, makes them wary collaborators at a time when discrimination is institutionalised, taxation is prohibitive and violence is common.

New Gold Mountain won’t escape comparisons to David Milch’s acclaimed Deadwood, the profane HBO saga of how order evolves in an 1870s American frontier mining town, but it covers enough ground over four episodes to stake its own claim. Money flows upwards and the ramifications for slowing it flow downwards. “People believe what version of the truth suits them – I’m tired of that way,” says Hattie (Leonie Whyman), an Aboriginal woman who moves among the city’s tent-strewn districts. As with the history books that would follow, the official version of events and the truth aren’t always consistent.

Belle’s publishing philosophy – “people like a mystery and some blood. I don’t see the shame in giving it to them” – is reflected by the series as a whole. When a mainland syndicate boss dispatches his daughter, Cheung Lei (Mabel Li), to audit a harried middle manager, she establishes her crime-drama bona fides with a villain’s monologue and a touch of ritualistic torture. There are also comical supporting characters and ripe interludes, so that the tone is never unwaveringly grim. And as the characters’ allegiances are tested, the narrative circles back to uncover more about each of them. One of the most telling exchanges is a brief conversation between Belle and Lei, two women comparing their agency in patriarchal societies.

While the exterior locations and sets provided by the goldfields museum at Sovereign Hill are too tidy for the chaotic era, director Corrie Chen’s earthy green and brown palette gives the series a naturalistic feel. This is not the Australian landscape as otherworldly setting, but as one that is readily recognisable in its gnarled trees, the natural light and, ultimately, as the site of struggle for representation. New Gold Mountain tells us that the official voice, amplified as the victor’s right, was just the loudest of many, but when you listen carefully, the whispers beneath, in different tongues, tell their own gripping story.

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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