A Cry in the Dark (1988)

A Cry in the Dark

Aka Evil Angels. You could crack walnuts on her face. Fred Schepisi’s docudrama-style retelling of John Bryson’s book is real watercooler stuff:  the appalling tale of a 9-week old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, taken from her family’s tent at a campsite beneath Ayers Rock and presumably murdered, and the prosecution and wrongful conviction of her mother Lindy (Meryl Streep). A dingo’s got my baby! was the war cry attributed to the unsympathetic woman whose every character flaw was exposed by a prurient Australian press who condemned her because of her appearance (that terrible haircut!), speaking voice and curt mannerisms. As played by Streep, she is obviously a more complex, interesting and compassionate woman in private.  Her inner strength is immensely bothersome to a public who are shown reacting variously to news reportage on TV – in their own homes, in bars, on the streets – which serves to demonstrate the horrendous arena that is the court of public opinion as well as distancing us somewhat perhaps from a more penetrating account of the couple at the centre of the tragedy. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is the pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa, Queensland and it is the minority nature of their Christian sect that also works against them when the name Azaria is wrongly reported to mean ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. His unconvincing and wavering witness testimony does for his wife, as does the sheer incompetence of the expert witnesses, many of whose claims were later discounted. The impact of her interviews and the way in which they are misreported by a baying press is very well handled and her eventual imprisonment on circumstantial as opposed to forensic evidence is still strikingly mediaeval in its stupidity (preserve us all from juries). Streep is terribly good and the portrayal of a loving marriage in all its fraying details is nicely observed:  posited against the procedural detail and the slipshod collection of evidence we are conscious of something akin to a conspiracy. This was released just about the time that the Chamberlains were finally exonerated (but it took until 2012 for the charges to be finally dropped). This isn’t creative so much as it is journalistic and in that spirit it makes up for the actions of some of those sewer rats who waited thirty years to apologise to Lindy Chamberlain for their vile lies. Her ex-husband (they divorced in 1991) died earlier this year. Adapted by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi from John Bryson’s Evil Angels.

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A Welcome to Britain (1943)

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Burgess Meredith introduces American troops to the scepter’d isle to prepare them for the bizarre rituals of the locals: this Defense Dept film was intended to smooth relations between the beleaguered Brits and the crass Yankee soldiers – with one million of them swirling around the old country up to December 1943 throwing their money around and behaving inappropriately. In an amusing series of vignettes co-directed by Anthony Asquith and star Meredith, we learn how to behave in pubs (not the same as saloons), the family home, restaurants (where there’s a variation on potato for every war-rationed course); discover the geography of the country with Felix Aylmer as ‘Mister Chips’ in a classroom; Bob Hope explains shillings and pence and Beatrice Lillie performs one of her bits. All in all fairly palatable, with the glaring example of introducing the notion of coloured soldiers which yields an exchange with a General best deemed of its time. There is some gunfire and a little action with real-life soldiers but this propaganda docu-drama is notable for having been telecast Stateside in 1944.

Man On Wire (2008)

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James Marsh’s adaptation of high-wire walker Philippe Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds is weirdly thrilling:  the story of his dance across the clouds between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Featuring interviews with the key players, dramatic reconstructions, home movie footage, old interviews and stills of the act itself, this is a monument to daring, devilry, the NYPD’s legal praxis  (Petit & Co were arrested, one deported) and an architectural wonder which was destroyed in 9/11 and is the horribly tragic elephant in the room. It all goes to show that people do incredible things.

San Demetrio London (1943)

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“I’ll do my best to steer her in the right direction but it’ll be by a guess and by God.” So says the captain of a downed merchant tanker which the crew reclaims from their lifeboat after U-boats have torpedoed it and they find it floating and on fire in the Atlantic. There are no star performances here – it’s not In Which We Serve either, a dissection of class – just a group of ordinary men, including a Yank, coming to the aid of this entity afloat. It of course serves as a metaphor for little island Britain and pluck and Allied cooperation. Robert Hamer came to the rescue of Charles Frend when he became very ill during production and they both wrote the screenplay. One of a number of propaganda films made by Ealing Studios and it makes excellent use of stock footage.