A Cry in the Dark Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 1 release of A Cry in the Dark.

Australia 1980. Seventh Day Adventist pastor Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill), his wife Lindy (Meryl Streep), their two sons and their five-week-old daughter Azaria go on a holiday to Ayer’s Rock. Disaster strikes when a dingo snatches Azaria from her tent. After searching, the baby’s body cannot be found, and Lindy finds herself accused of murder. The Dingo Baby Case divides the whole of Australia.

A Cry in the Dark is based on John Bryson’s non-fiction book Evil Angels (under which title the film was released in Australia). Not everything made by Golan & Globus for their Cannon company was dross; this – a co-production with producer Verity Lambert’s company, Cinema Verity – is one of the few exceptions. It uses a very large cast (168 names credited) to follow, in many short scenes, the effect of the case on the Australian public. The film is especially critical of the media and their distortions. Some of the more lurid speculations (for example, that Azaria means “sacrifice in the wilderness”) remind us that the worst excesses of the tabloids are not restricted to Britain.

Fred Schepisi is an underrated director, partly because the making of well-crafted, intelligent adult movies within the commercial system is somehow deeply unfashionable – particularly if they can be dismissed as “chickflicks”, an impression the packaging of A Cry in the Dark does nothing to dispel. Even minor work like Mr Baseball and his reshoots of Fierce Creatures can be appreciated for craftsmanship, even if in those two examples they aren’t particularly funny. (The only time Schepisi coincided with fashion was when he made Roxanne, and that was due to Steve Martin’s presence.) On this film’s release, many reviewers couldn’t get past Meryl Streep’s putting on yet another foreign accent. True, there were Australians who could have played the part (Wendy Hughes comes to mind), but none of them would have been big enough stars to get the film made. Streep received an Oscar-nomination for her work here, and rightly so: in other films (such as Out of Africa) the accent is pitch-perfect, but the brilliant technique gets in the way of a performance. Here, Streep’s Strine accent is flawless, but she also gets across Lindy’s bloody-mindedness that caused much of Australia to turn against her. The film could perhaps have used more ambiguity, as we are left in no doubt that Lindy is a loving mother and quite innocent from the start. Sam Neill is very impressive as Michael, who is much the weaker half of the couple. As the film progresses, his religious faith crumbles, the Chamberlains’ marriage comes under strain and Michael is a broken man, stumbling through his courtroom testimony. The film holds the attention from the start, and many scenes are heartbreaking.

All Schepisi’s feature films bar one (his first, The Devil’s Playground) were shot in Scope. His consistently fluent handling of the format, often composing in medium-shot across the width of the frame, makes him one of its finest exponents in today’s cinema. Note the way he often frames the Chamberlains in two-shots, to emphasise their togetherness against adversity. Much of this would be diminished by panning and scanning, but fortunately the film has been transferred in an 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that does justice to Ian Baker’s superb photography. Schepisi and Baker avoid bold colours, going for a mid-toned look, with strong blacks especially in the opening twenty minutes. The DVD is in the original Dolby Surround. This isn’t a film to give your speakers a workout, as the surround track is mainly used for Bruce Smeaton’s music score and some directional effects of wind in leaves and helicopters flying overhead, but the dialogue is clearly recorded. The only extra is the trailer (in 16:9 anamorphic) which is efficient without being outstanding. Warner Home Video have been generous with the chapter stops, forty in all, and the disc conmes in the usual Warners snapper case.

This is another Warners bare-bones backlist title, adequately packaged but not outstanding as a disc. But ultimately it’s the film which counts, and it’s a good one.


Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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