Disney's first Australian drama is uncomfortably good with its eerie setting and unsettling cult teachings.
With regulation coming to streaming by 2024, local subsciption platforms have been getting on the front-foot to produce Australian content.
Disney+ arrived in Australia in 2019 but it has taken until 2023 to finally unveil its first local drama, one of the last to do so.
Happily, The Clearing is a top-shelf start, an 8 part psychological thriller which centres around a cult known as The Kindred and carries some heavyweight actors.
Based on the novel In the Clearing by J. P. Pomare, the series advises while it is inspired by real-life, all the characters and incidents are a fiction. With its platinum blonde children looking like they have just stepped out of Children of the Damned, it’s not hard to work out the source material.
Leading this cult is Adrienne (Miranda Otto) in what appears to be the 1990s in a bush commune, likely to be east of Melbourne (there are location shots which look like Dandenongs / Yarra Valley and Eildon areas). She’s an enigmatic and feared leader known by her dozen or so children as “Mummy.” But in The Clearing, she is not the central character.
Freya (Teresa Palmer) a single mum is raising her young son Billy (Flynn Wandin) but her fears are heightened when a young child, Sara (Lily La Torre), is reported missing from the local town. Freya is paranoid kidnappers are coming next for her son. It’s clear she knows something, but what….?
Meanwhile Sara was indeed snatched by a white van and taken to the cult in an attempt to reprogram her as Asha, complete with hair dye. It falls to young teen Amy (Julia Savage) to instruct her in the group’s discipline, physical exercise, religious practice and perpetual subservience to ‘Mummy’ and her associated aunties (Kate Mulvaney, Anna Lise Phillips).
But kidnapping Sara has brought media and police attention with a local detective (Hazem Shammas) sniffing around, raising fears by the group’s doctor (Guy Pearce) that they are now at great risk.
“You have put the kindred in grave danger…. you will answer to Matrea for what you’ve done,” he warns.
Writers Matt Cameron and Elise McCredie play with the timelines of this tale, delicately woven by director Jeffery Walker (Lambs of God, Jack Irish, Riot, Modern Family, Young Rock) into a haunting, uncomfortably cold setting. The cinematography makes much of its bodies of water, particularly with Eildon’s dead trees protruding from lake water, and the dark forest setting where almost anything could happen…
Indeed there are beatings, drugs, and children locked for hours in darkened rooms. With their smiling facades, you’ve never shivered so much to children singing The Seekers “A World of Our Own.”
Of the performances it is young Julia Savage who steals the show, with a blank canvas face and subtle emotions that remind me of Essie Davis. Miranda Otto is sickly sweet as the cult leader killing her lambs with faux affection whilst her most devious Aunty Tamsin (Kate Mulvaney) is stealing social security cheques in the name of the children.
“Do you want to grow up Amy?…. You are the heir to everything that is mine,” Adrienne smiles to Amy.
Other cast will include Erroll Shand, Claudia Karvan, Mark Coles Smith, Doris Younane and Xavier Samuel.
So many dramas centre around missing children… Top of the Lake, The Kettering Incident, The Missing, Stranger Things, The Cry, Hollington Drive, Dark, Safe… protection and nurturing are such fundamental instincts, it’s as if failure is a snapshot of the state of a society. As storytelling, you can navigate all the twists and turns you care to -but only one outcome will be ultimately satisfying.
Amid genre successes, The Clearing finds good company, as Disney+ finally makes an Australian mark.
The Clearing premieres Wednesday on Star / Disney+