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Emily Barclay & Richard Roxburgh, The Silence Emily Barclay & Richard Roxburgh, The Silence
photo Matt Nettheim
When broadcast in April, the 2-part telemovie The Silence was promoted as something of a showcase for the beleaguered ABC drama department, the program that "might help resuscitate the ABC's reputation as a producer of quality television"(Sacha Molitorisz, "Good cop, mad cop", Sydney Morning Herald, March 29). With the hours of Australian drama on our television screens dropping drastically in recent years, a new program from the team that brought us Somersault was always going to garner a lot of attention. Produced by the seasoned Jan Chapman, the telemovie also reunited Somersault's behind-the-camera pairing of director Cate Shortland and cinematographer Robert Humphreys. A strong team and an intriguing dramatic premise offered the possibility that The Silence might actually deliver the kind of innovative locally-produced drama that has been so lacking in the contemporary Australian television landscape.

One of the great weaknesses of our local TV dramas is their almost uniformly unadventurous visual style, so Shortland was an inspired directorial choice. She is one of the few Australian filmmakers who really delves into the visually expressive possibilities of cinema, relying on the colour and texture of her images to tell her stories at least as much as words. Which made The Silence's unvaryingly predictable visual approach all the more disappointing. While there were elements of the emotive colour palette of Somersault, they were less successfully integrated into the story. In the main Shortland fell back on the shaky camera work and jagged editing that has become virtually de-rigueur for 'edgy' Australian cop dramas since the pioneering Wild Side and Blue Murder a decade ago.

The sense of harking back to former cop drama glories was reinforced by the presence of Richard Roxburgh, turning in a decent lead performance as the traumatised detective Richard Treloar, a role not a million miles from his remarkable portrayal of the infamous Roger Rogerson in Blue Murder. But the tough talking, emotionally wounded Treloar was essentially a by-numbers addition to the long list of similarly depressed detectives who have been the mainstay of crime fiction since the 1940s. The rest of The Silence’s characters ranged from one-dimensional stereotypes to barely fleshed out plot devices. The fault here essentially lay in the writing, which as well as relying on hackneyed character types was fatally undermined by a chronic lack of thematic development.

The idea for The Silence apparently came to writers Mary Walsh and Alice Addison while Walsh was working at Sydney's Justice and Police Museum. Centring on the aforementioned Treloar, the story begins with the detective posted to a desk job at the Police Museum after he witnesses, and fails to stop, the shooting of a police informer. At the museum he curates an exhibition of vintage crime scene photographs and notices an attractive young woman loitering at the edge of several shots from the early 1960s. When the woman turns up as a corpse in a series of photographs from 1964, Treloar becomes obsessed with uncovering her identity and exhuming her story.

Anyone who saw Ross Gibson and Kate Richard’s Crime Scene exhibition at Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum (1999-2000) will have experienced the mysterious allure of vintage crime scene photographs. Recording the bloody aftermath of grisly events, they frequently feature an unnerving combination of homely domestic settings or prosaic public spaces marked by traces of extreme violence such as mangled corpses, pools of blood, overturned chairs or bloodied blunt objects. The photographs function as mute historical witnesses, clinically recording every physical detail before the lens but offering no explanation for the horrors they depict. In its opening half-hour The Silence seemed to be exploring the morbid fascination of these images, offering a thought-provoking consideration of photography's ambiguous, uncertain relationship to the past.

Several of The Silence's early scenes brought to mind Antonioni's Blowup (1996), which similarly revolved around an alienated character trying to unlock the story of a crime caught on film. However, where Antonioni offered a rich meditation on photography's slippery relationship to reality, The Silence quickly shied away from anything remotely resembling philosophically engaging content. Instead, the plot rapidly degenerates into a convoluted murder mystery in which the crime scene photographs function simply as narrative markers, holding all the clues required to solve a 40 year-old crime.

In a ludicrous turn of events, the murdered woman is revealed to be closely linked to Treloar’s mysterious childhood, and solving her 1964 murder conveniently serves to resolve the detective’s emotional issues in the present. Happily, the murderer is still at large in the local area, which gives Treloar the opportunity to engage in a strange scene of transference in which he appears to be following a ghostly shadow of his mother to her killer's house. Once there, he stumbles upon a scene of the murderer holding his estranged girlfriend (a fellow police detective) at gun point. Blurring with the apparition of his mother, his girlfriend is shot down. But this time the victim survives. Thus, in apprehending his mother's killer, Treloar undergoes a kind of bizarre "rebirth", reliving his mother's murder—except this time the incident has a happy ending, clearing the way for the program's trite up-beat conclusion.

The script glibly ties together every disparate narrative thread from 1964 to the present stretching credibility beyond belief and, suffocatingly, leaves no room for viewer interpretation. The program's thematic tentativeness would have been more forgivable if it hadn't suffered from such narrative straitjacketing.

There has been much hand-wringing lately about the dire state of drama on the national broadcaster, with output plummeting from 103 hours annually to just 13 in the past four years (figures quoted in "Senators could cross floor over media law changes", ABC News Online, March 15). The Silence's numerous failings are indicative of how damaging such low levels of production can be. Without a sense of ongoing production, with old hands fostering young talent and healthy competition inspiring innovation, the dynamics of an active industry are lost. Broadcasters become increasingly conservative, genres remain static, writers and directors fall back on clichés, and audiences become utterly indifferent. Unless we regain some sense of critical mass in terms of production, we have little hope of producing television drama of worth, irrespective of the talent involved. Given the limited opportunities for making feature films in this country, this has serious implications for the health of Australian screen drama as a whole.

In this context, the $88.2 million increase over three years to ABC funding announced in May's federal budget (with $30 million earmarked for drama production) is far from impressive. A leaked draft of the recent KPMG report on ABC funding stated that an increase of $125 million over three years was necessary for the broadcaster to even maintain current services. In light of this shortfall, May's financial boost hardly signals an end to the crisis.

The Silence, director Cate Shortland, producer Jan Chapman, writers Alice Addison, Mary Walsh, performers Richard Roxburgh, Essie Davis, Alice McConnell, Emily Barclay, ABC Television , 2006

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 22

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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