Australian novel to television series adaptations have had a revival in the last twelve months (see Christos Tsiolkas’ incredible book The Slap for just one example) and Cloudstreet is yet another cherry on the cinematic pie. Released twenty years after Tim Winton’s novel, Cloudstreet is firmly set in a distinct period of Australian history, from the mid-40s to the late-50s, and covers an enormous amount of time with great detail. Although the story never deviates from the lives of the characters, serious social issues are raised throughout the series, including the Aboriginal stolen generation, mental disabilities and the plight of the working class.
The series follows the tragedies of two very different Australian families, the Lambs and the Pickles. During a night-time fishing trip, Fish Lamb (Hugo-Johnstone-Burt), son to Oriel (Kerry Fox) and Lester (Geoff Morrell), and brother to Quick (Todd Lasance), is drowned in the net. Although Oriel is able to resuscitate him, his brain is irreversibly damaged. After the accident, the family move from their farm in the country and head towards Perth to find accommodation and work.
Simultaneously, gambling man Sam Pickles (Stephen Curry) loses all the fingers on his right hand in an off shore mining accident, leaving his wife, Dolly (Essie Davis), and daughter, Rose (Emma Booth), without the money needed to support them. In a fortunate twist of fate, Sam’s brother dies, leaving him a sprawling house in the suburbs of Perth. The Pickles’need money and the Lamb’s need a home, and so number one Cloudstreet comes to house both families.
While the Lambs take to their new situation well, Sam struggles with his gambling and Dolly drinks to ignore the stresses of her home life. Throughout the various trials of the two families, the secret of Cloudstreet is slowly revealed and Perth moves into a new, post-war era…
Cloudstreet opens with a collection of memories that show the Lambs and the Pickles celebrating on the beach. From here, the audience are taken to the present moment wherein Fish Lamb drowns and is brought back to life. This is a beautifully realised scene, despite its tragedy, and the family’s religious beliefs are introduced in an incredibly touching way. Overall, the dramatic tension throughout the entire series is handled with similarly delicate hands. The characters inhabit their miseries without every losing the humanity necessary to love one another, and though many of their actions are morally corrupt, they are intensely sympathetic. Much of this success lies in the incredible acting.
Even the child actors manage to capture the spirit of the times without seeming out of their era.
This particular adaptation is an unusual choice for Steven Curry, seeing that most of his other screen appearances have been in a comedy form, but, as Sam Pickles, he shines with personal doubt and wit. Davis and Booth are both gorgeous and share a powerful dynamic as uncaring mother and disappointed daughter. In fact, there is no weakest link with any of the actors. It’s no mean feat attempting an adaptation of such a magnitude as Winton’s novel, particularly one that spans such a vast period of time, but each character’s emotional arc develops with great subtlety and understanding. Even the child actors manage to capture the spirit of the times without seeming out of their era.
Australian cinema has long been known for its spectacular use of landscape and scenery to support the stories they tell and Cloudstreet is no different. Visually, each and every episode is stunning. What would usually be considered barren environment leaps from the screen with riots of colour and the period has been recreated with absolute perfection. The design of the house is a delicate combination of run-down Australian glamour, and both spiritual and historical haunting. As a backdrop for the activities of the families, it acts as both a catalyst and comfort, as well as being a lovely piece of set.
Perhaps it was the complicated themes of Winton’s novel that gave rise to some consternation when the series was being made – the book includes the murderous rampage of serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke, the mistreatment of Aboriginal school girls, and dramatic loss of faith. While another series may communicate these issues with a heavy hand, preachier than eye-opening, Cloudstreet treats them with great delicacy and never places drama over emotional depth. That’s what truly makes this series a stand-out example of book to series adaptations.
This television series came from an extremely promising starting point, but with such pressure, there was every chance that the result would fall far short of expectations. Thankfully, this has not happened. Cloudstreet is a gorgeous looking creation with actors who care about what they’re doing and a director who knows how to capture their best sides. It is, at times, tragic and hilarious, but never dips too heavily either way. The symbolism throughout each episode may seem overdone to some viewers, but when you consider the inspiration, the balance is just perfect. Director Matthew Saville should be extremely proud of such a memorable visual feast.
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