Australian producers have long taken true-crime stories and stripped them for parts. Animal Kingdom imagined events on either side of the Walsh Street shooting, in which cops were gunned down in cold blood, while The Boys worked backwards from the murder of Anita Cobby, dramatising the world that created her killers.
These were films that took shocking acts of violence and imagined the context, as distinct from the more recent Nitram, which adopted the ticking time-bomb structure of The Boys, cutting to black just before the horror, but was explicitly about Martin Bryant rather than a Bryant-like figure. Nitram provoked a predictable firestorm, even more so than screenwriter Shaun Grant and director Justin Kurzel’s earlier collaboration, Snowtown, about the infamous bodies-in-barrels murders. At the time, Grant was advised to make his script for Snowtown more like Animal Kingdom’s: inspired by real events rather than overtly depicting them.
That preference only seems to have become more entrenched in the years since, at least among financing bodies. Nitram was followed by The Stranger last year, starring Joel Edgerton and billed as a gritty crime drama about the personal costs of undercover police work. When the film was announced, no mention was made of the fact that the producers had optioned a book about the Daniel Morcombe case, and they managed to omit that fact until the last.
Whether you think that’s dishonest or just pragmatic to evade (or at least defer) accusations of exploitation, the strategy feels set to become the new normal. And it’s certainly in evidence in the rollout of the new Disney+ series The Clearing, an adaptation of J.P. Pomare’s 2019 novel In the Clearing, which was heavily inspired by cult group The Family. The show’s imagery reflects that: the kids with blond hair and identikit tracksuits, the picturesque but spooky Lake Eildon location, the female cult leader with the Farrah Fawcett blowout. According to Disney, however, the show is patterned not on any single cult, but an amalgam of them.
They’re not fooling anyone, and presumably this game of peekaboo is obligatory to guard against legal action (either that or a demonstration of Disney’s notorious brand sensitivity). Because it’s clear the creative team knew the material they were dredging and have made no attempt to conceal it. Indeed, one of the things that made the story fascinating to the screenwriters was the gender of the messianic figure at its centre.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne was a Geelong yoga teacher when she founded The Family in the mid 1960s with Raynor Johnson, a physicist at the University of Melbourne with an interest in mysticism. Their beliefs were a melange of various religions, and the group was recognisably a doomsday cult. Members of The Family were middle-class professionals, and many had ties to the medical community. Newhaven psychiatric hospital in Kew became a recruiting ground, and it also supplied the cult with LSD, which was frequently administered to Hamilton-Byrne’s “children”. As many as 28 at one time, these kids were in fact either the children of other cult members or adopted. Raised as preppers, waiting to inherit the earth, they were frequently subjected to beatings as well as other punishments, including the withholding of food for days.
The group’s property portfolio included Crowther House in the Dandenong Ranges, where Hamilton-Byrne lived, as well as their temple, Santiniketan Lodge, in nearby Ferny Creek. A couple of hours north was the group’s Lake Eildon property. This geography is reflected in the show, which also honours the internal hierarchy of the cult, with the children terrorised by female minders or “aunts” who are themselves living in fear of their supreme leader, Adrienne, played here by Miranda Otto with a singsong lilt and a smile.
But the show follows the book’s invented story, kicking off with the brazen abduction of a child in broad daylight. It never happened – kidnapping was not part of The Family’s modus operandi – and the opening sequence acts like a kind of signpost, pulling us into a world that is recognisable but torqued.
Screenwriter and showrunner Elise McCredie (she created the series with Matt Cameron) has form in this department. She co-wrote Stateless, which fictionalised the sad story of Cornelia Rau, and Ride Like a Girl, the more conventionally hagiographic biopic of champion jockey and Melbourne Cup winner Michelle Payne. The difference this time was having a novel to adapt, one that had already fictionalised certain elements. “We were working very much from the book, rather than from any true-life scenario,” McCredie says. “So that was the inspiration. Obviously, I’m doing a dance here, as you know.”
Ride Like a Girl star Teresa Palmer plays the lead, Freya, a fictional character who seems to exist in a perpetual state of hypervigilance. Freya and her young son, Billy, live above a river somewhere in the bush outside Melbourne. Already skittish when we meet her, she’s alarmed by a report on the TV news about a missing child. And her anxiety is made even worse by repeat sightings of a white van lurking in the neighbourhood.
Freya’s story is intercut over eight episodes with that of Amy (Julia Savage, who starred in Del Kathryn Barton’s Blaze last year). Adrienne’s eldest “daughter”, Amy is tasked with assimilating the cult’s latest member, the highly recalcitrant Asha, into the ways of her new family, and bears the brunt of the punishment from a bullfrog warden (Kate Mulvany) when the terrified girl tries to escape or wets the bed.
It’s hard to say more without venturing into spoiler territory. Suffice to say the twist that ends the first episode initially occurred at the end of the second. Streamers such as Disney or Netflix demand a strong “hook” at the end of their pilots, however, and The Clearing feels emblematic of the ways in which the streaming model is shaping the local industry: short-run, premiering worldwide on the same date, and overseen by writer-showrunners who work through physical production and into post, liaising with every department rather than just handing over their scripts.
The old image of the introverted writer in a garret no longer applies. Though it never did to McCredie, who started her career as an actor (and still acts occasionally) before turning to writing and directing. About 10 years ago she decided to focus solely on writing, and it was Stateless, a mosaic rendering of Australia’s detention system created by McCredie with her old Methodist Ladies’ College schoolmate Cate Blanchett and Tony Ayres, that gave her the chance to work across every aspect of a series for the first time.
Stateless was set just before Australia’s offshore camps were established – before Nauru and Manus Island. But that future is clearly foreshadowed, and the show’s ending is, McCredie admits, a pretty bleak one. “I really wanted to do something light after Stateless,” she laughs. “That didn’t quite work out.” The difference, she says, is that The Clearing is ultimately a story of redemption.
“And I think I was craving that, particularly with a female protagonist,” McCredie says, “because there wasn’t any real redemption in Stateless. I think I’m really interested as a writer-creator in overcoming, finding a way through trauma, finding the light. And that really attracted me to this story, because I wanted to explore what happens if you have terrible things happen to you, [but] I didn’t want to tell the story where you’re endlessly in the cycle of trauma.”
That cycle is a generational one, and one of the most interesting problems The Clearing explores is how to parent in the absence of a template. If you’ve grown up being belted for any infringement, perceived or otherwise, how do you discipline your own child? Freya is questioned at the school gate by Billy’s teacher after the boy turns up with a black eye. His mother is a helicopter parent, uneasy if Billy leaves her sight, but Freya might also be a danger to him, in a paradox the audience understands because it’s clear she’s traumatised. Billy is a locus for his mother’s fears – fears about his safety as well as the monster within her – and a reason to face them.
Cults have been around for a long time, and they’re unlikely to go away in a world in which truth – the very concept of objective truth – is more contested than ever. Even cults that predate our modern vocabulary of truthers and gaslighting are suddenly topical. And they’re everywhere in our popular culture. Indeed, McCredie has now made two shows in a row about them (“That’s it, I’m not doing any more, I promise”).
Stateless pinpoints the psychic break experienced by the Cornelia Rau manqué (played brilliantly by Yvonne Strahovski) to her experiences in a cult presided over by a husband and wife. The husband abuses his power in the most predictable of ways, and it’s in the exercise of power, McCredie argues, that cults retain their fascination.
“Whether it’s through government or interpersonal relationships or constructs like patriarchy, we’re all aware that there’s an imbalance in power in our lives somewhere.” And so, McCredie says, cults serve as microcosms: little enclosed worlds that bring the big one into relief, and that dispense with the delusion that power and control is wielded by the many, rather than by the few.
McCredie has by now spent years researching cults, and “what you learn really quickly from the research is that the people that get involved with cults – they’re not any different from you and me. And so it begs the question: why? Why are people being convinced by cult leaders?” She has theories: the universal desire to belong; the power of charisma twinned with love, or the appearance of it; our need for a strong leader, for rules. Another reason might be the void left in Western society by the decline of religion, which, she points out, runs parallel to the rise and preponderance of cults in the second half of last century.
She’s just as interested in the cult leaders as those who enlist in their service. McCredie read Pomare’s book in one day, and “what excited me so much as a writer – and this is so rare – was that there was a female protagonist, Teresa’s character, but the antagonist was [also] female. And that was thrilling to me.” She was eager to explore the ways in which power is exploited differently when the all-powerful is a woman – sexual abuse, for instance, is just one of the perennials that doesn’t feature here – and to consider why a female cult leader is such a rarity (a major reason Hamilton-Byrne continues to fascinate).
“I mean, I often thought, when I was writing it, that she-who-shall-not-be-named [Hamilton-Byrne] was born in the wrong time, because I reckon now she would be a CEO. If you think about women in that time, in the 1970s – if you’re incredibly ambitious and driven, career minded, there were so few openings. So through a feminist lens I think it’s really interesting to look at that character. You know, my mum had the choice to be a teacher or a physiotherapist or an OT. That was just so limiting in terms of what women’s career trajectories were, because having babies and a husband were more important.”
McCredie’s own career has sometimes seemed circuitous to her, but her arrival as a creative steward has been well timed, with the number of buyers for TV shows exploding in the past five years. The imposition of local content quotas on streaming platforms is only going to turbocharge that, she says, and the new paradigm is changing the kind of stories getting made.
“There’s one I want to tell… it’s a very personal and not necessarily commercial story. But I think, because of the way the streamers have worked with algorithms, an audience can be found. You can have a niche show now.” She points to Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You) as idiosyncratic creators whose shows might never have seen the light of day in an earlier era.
That kind of creative risk-taking is already evident in McCredie’s work, which betrays a feminist viewpoint, and not a pat one, either. As with Stateless, The Clearing dramatises the erasure of individual female identity, subsumed by the cult. The subversive question that both series float is whether that erasure might seem easier, to some women, than trying to negotiate broader society’s expectations and censure.
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