Western Australia, 1943. Cloudstreet begins with two accidents that eventually bring two families together. Samson Lamb (Tom Russell as a child, later Hugo Johnstone-Burt) nearly drowns, and ever after he has a yearning to return to the water, and is nicknamed “Fish”. His parents Lester (Geoff Morrell) and Oriel (Kerry Fox) and his brothers and sisters, leave their farming community to seek their fortune in the city of Perth. Sam Pickles (Stephen Curry) loses his fingers in a fishing accident, but he and his wife Dolly (Essie Davis) inherit a house at 1 Cloud Street, Perth. The house is too large for their family, so they advertise to rent out half of it – and the Lamb family answers the advertisement.
It's Tim Winton's Cloudstreet on the opening credits of each episode of this six-hour miniseries made for Showtime Australia (a pay-TV channel), and he no doubt earns the proprietory credit. It's based on his 1991 novel, winner of the Miles Franklin Award (which Winton has won a record four times in all), now studied in Australian schools and previously adapted for the stage. (Winton's earlier novels That Eye, The Sky and In the Winter Dark have both been filmed.). He co-wrote the script with Ellen Fontana. Cloudstreet is at root a double-headed family saga, taking us from World War II into the dawn of the 1960s. On that level it's very well done, with strong performances in engaging character roles. Period is carefully recreated, and the storyline takes note of world events as they affect the lives of the characters. Cloudstreet has the narrative pull of the best drama. The Lamb family value hard work and industry, soon turning their half of the house into a shop. Meanwhile, the Pickles family, who trust more to luck and chance, have issues of their own, as Dolly slides into frustrated, embittered promiscuity and drunkenness. And their intellectually-gifted daughter Rose (Lara Robertson, later Emma Booth) finds love...
But Cloudstreet is lifted out of the ordinary by some fantastical – or magic-realist – touches. We have a talking pig (voiced by Bruce Spence) and a parakeet which excretes coins. And the house itself is a character in the story: there are scenes where, at night, its walls seem to breathe. It has a history and hints of supernatural goings-on. None of this is given a rational explanation (though Pig could be a figment of Fish's imagination). Only the Aboriginal Bob Crab (Kenton Pell) knows. It just is.
The director was Matthew Saville. He began in advertising and made some short films before breaking into television. He has worked mostly in that medium, though made a well-received big-screen feature with Noise in 2007, to be followed in 2013 with Felony. He had a busy 2010/11: not only did he direct the whole of Cloudstreet but he also directed two of the eight episodes of another miniseries, The Slap, broadcast on the free-to-air ABC channel. (And Essie Davis played a leading role in both.) Unfortunately for Cloudstreet, the darker and arguably misanthrophic The Slap dominated the AACTA Awards' television section: the only one that the more upbeat and benign Cloudstreet won was for Lara Robinson as Best Young Actor. However, Savile did win for Cloudstreet the Asutralian Directors' Guild award for Best Direction in a TV Miniseries. It was broadcast in the UK by Sky Atlantic.
Cloudstreet is released by Channel 4 DVD as a three-disc set, two DVD-9s for the episodes and a DVD-5 for the extras. The original Australian broadcast appears to have been in three episodes, but in other countries it was divided into six, the final one longer than the others. Disc One contains the first three (57:10, 57:05, 57:00) with the remainder on Disc Two (55:04, 57:02, 81:34). Each episode from the second onwards begins with a short reprise of the previous episode and both discs have a Play All option.
Shot in HD, Cloudstreet is presented on DVD in a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. Saville and his DP give the drama a colourful look, often tending towards oranges and browns in the interior scenes. Blacks are not a solid as they might be, though that could be due to the original HD shoot. You don't expect anything to be amiss in a DVD release of such a recent production, and I'm in no doubt that what you see here is what you were intended to see on your TV sets.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, though the surrounds are used mainly for the music score and ambience, without too much in the way of directional sound. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.
The extras on Disc 3 have a Play All option (totalling 102:16) and hard-of-hearing subtitles available. A submenu divides these into two: “Promos, Trailers and Character Spots” and “Behind the Scenes”. The former comprise: “Launch Promo” (1:08), “Trailer” (3:17), “Dolly Promo” (1:07), “Fish Promo” (1:12), “Lester Promo” (1:10), “Oriel Promo” (1:10), “Quick Promo” (1:10), “Rose Promo” (1:08) and “Sam Promo” (1:12). As you can guess from the short running times, these are hardly in-depth: they're obvious EPK items with narration and illustrated with clips from the series.
The “Behind the Scenes” items are not much more indepth: “Behind the Scenes Part I” (5:26), “Behind the Scenes Part II” (9:46), “Adapting an Australian Classic” (25:17), “About the Characters” (12:01), “Making of Cloudstreet” (6:55), “Creating the Music” (6:04), “Creating the Magic” (5:58), “From Novel to Script to Screen” (7:05), “Creating the Sound” (4:26) and “Creating the World of Cloudstreet” (6:54). There is a lot of repetition, from the opening intros to the same interview material appearing in more than one featurette. There are some annoying omissions: while it's nice to have some insight into the work of the production designer, DP and sound designer, these items are so keen to extol Tim Winton that it fails to mention that he has a co-screenwriter, Ellen Fontana. While none of this is uninteresting, it's nothing you haven't seen or heard before on other DVDs. You can't help feeling that there's a better making-of featurette lurking here, one of about half the total length.