Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities

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The first series of Underbelly was a success, so this follow-up, broadcast a year later (2009) on the Austarlian commercial channel Nine, was the inevitable result. The first series, factually-based, dealt with events in Melbourne between 1995 and 2004, with an escalating gangland war, the rise of career criminal Carl Williams, and the efforts of the police to tackle the increasingly violent events. This second series is a prequel, covering the years 1976 to 1977, and dealing with the drug trade (the "Mr Asia" syndicate based in Singapore) and attempts of the police of both Sydney and Melbourne (the "two cities" of the subtitle) to combat it. While many of the writers and directors of the first series are retained, there is a whole new cast. The only holdover is Caroline Craig, who played the lead role of Detective Jacqui James in the first series and also narrated it, and who returns as her character but solely as the narrator. However, Jacqui appears in a couple of episodes as a seven-year-old, and the lead police character, Senior Detective Constable Liz Cruickshank (Asher Keddie) of the Victorian Major Crime Squad, is her mother.

The structure of the series follows much the same pattern as the first: more emphasis on the criminals than on the police in the first half, with the latter's attempts to catch the criminals coming to the fore in the latter half of the thirteen episodes. We begin in 1976 with the meeting in Sydney of Bob Trimbole (Roy Billing) and New Zealander Terry Clark (Matthew Newton), nicknamed "Aussie Bob" and "Kiwi Terry" as per the opening episode title. (Having said that, in real life Billing is a New Zealander and Newton an Australian.) Clark has plans to establish heroin importation from Singapore into Australia and is keen to establish a partnership with Trimbole, whose drug trade is marijuana. Despite initial obstacles, such as local crimelord George Freeman (Peter O'Brien), who rebuffs Clark, and local politician Donald Mackay (andrew McFarlane) who resists their attempts at blackmail and is killed off as a result, Bob and Terry's venture is a success. Another key figure is fellow Kiwi Allison Dine (Anna Hutchison, a genuine New Zealander), who begins as one of Clark's drug couriers and soon becomes his mistress and right-hand woman in devising new ways to get the drugs past Customs. All this comes to the attention of the Melbourne police, in particular Liz Cruickshank and her boss Joe Messina (Peter Phelps)...

Again told over thirteen episodes (an hour slot, which translates to just under forty-five minutes with the commercials), shows an increase in scale. Not only do scenes take place in Melbourne and Sydney, but we also visit New Zealand, Singapore, London and Dublin. The writing (individual episodes by Peter Gawler, Felicity Packard, Kris Mrksa, Greg Haddrick) is less uneven than previously. Two of the four directors (Tony Tilse, Grant Brown) worked on the first series. The most distinguished addition to the directing roster is Ken Cameron, who directed episodes one and two, had made three feature films in the 1970s and 1980s (Monkey Grip, Fast Talking and The Good Wife aka The Umbrella Woman) but has since the last-named in 1987 has worked exclusively for television. Some of the direction is on the flashy side, and this series maintains the level of violence of its predecessor and ups the drug use and sexual content and nudity. The latter is, as I mentioned with the first series, often filmed in a very male-gazey way, with just about every adult woman in the cast other than Asher Keddie disrobing at one time or another. The directors also have a penchant for what has become later known as sexposition: have two characters talking in a club or bar and you can guarantee that the scene will be introduced by close shots of strippers or pole-dancers. Granted that this is meant to be the Seventies and a pretty sleazy milieu at that, but it's certainly overdone.

As before, the five lead actors get their names in the opening credits, even when they don't appear in a given episode. (Roy Billing is the only one to appear in all thirteen.) Other actors get their name onscreen after the episode titles, in episodes where their character plays a prominent part. The actor honours go to Roy Billing, as mentioned above a native New Zealander who began his career in that country and who has been a familiar face as a character actor in film and television on either side of the Tasman Sea. Billing creates a complex portrait of a career criminal who is undoubtedly a man capable of violence but also an overweight middle-aged man worn down by his years and a seriously enlarged prostate. Newton is appropriately menacing and Hutchison is fine, though circumscribed a bit by the script and direction's use of its female characters. Asher Keddie had been a child actress (she's one of the abducted children in the 1985 Fortress. As an adult, she's been seen mostly on Australian television, though has a role on the big screen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. A tall woman with long blonde hair, she's an imposing presence onscreen and makes her part as the main force for law and order easy for us to get onside with. It's fair to say, however, that Peter Phelps makes less of an impression. Peter O'Brien, his hair strikingly white, is impressive, all surface suavity covering the fact that he is most definitely not someone to cross. Way down the character list, appearing in one episode, you will see the notorious, and now-deceased Mark "Chopper" Read, portrayed here by Renato Fabretti but most famously played in a breakthrough role by Eric Bana in the big-screen feature Chopper. Being set further in the past than the previous series means no legal problems with the portrayals of real-life criminals still alive and waiting trial. However, due to laws preventing the portrayal of real-life police (unless they had been dishonourably discharged from the force), the police characters shown are again fictional characters.

Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities built on the success of the first series. It won Australian Film Institute Awards for Roy Billing, Kris Mrksa and supporting actor Damien de Montemas, both the latter for the eleventh episode The Brotherhood. Asher Keddie and Kate Ritchie (supporting actress in episode four, Business as Usual) received nominations. A third series, The Golden Mile, followed in 2010, again with thirteen episodes. It bridges the gap between the first two series, set in the nightclub and red light district of Sydney's Kings Cross of the title. The 2011 New Zealand-set spin-off serial Underbelly NZ: Land of the Long White Cloud deals with events overlapping with those of A Tale of Two Cities. But those are other DVD releases and, in due course, other reviews.

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The Discs


The first series of Underbelly was distributed on DVD in the UK by Contender Entertainment. Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities is released by Delta Home Entertainment and has a slight downgrade in specs from the first series. That had a 5.1 soundtrack and 2.0 audio-descriptive track, plus hard-of-hearing subtitles, which the present release lacks. As before, the thirteen episodes are spread over four dual-layered, all-regions discs, as follows:

Disc One
Aussie Bob and Kiwi Terry (42:17)
Bad Habits (43:33)
Brave New World (44:30)
Business as Usual (44:13)

Disc Two
A Tale of Two Hitmen (42:58)
Stranded (43:06)
A Nice Little Earner (42:44)

Disc Three
Diamonds (44:26)
Judas Kiss (44:16)
The Reckoning (42:44)

Disc Four
The Brotherhood (44:02)
O Lucky Man (44:20)
The Loved Ones (44:48)

Shot in HD, Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities appears on these SD discs in its correct ratio of 1.78:1. There's little to say about the picture as you would expect from a recent television production like this: it's colourful and sharp with strong blacks, much as it is no doubt intended to look in standard definition. (The series is available on Blu-ray in Australia.)

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround (2.0) though other than the music there's hardly any use of the surrounds. As mentioned above there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles which on the first series amongst other things were useful for identifying Australian rock music tracks on the soundtrack which I wasn't familiar with. (They are all listed in the end credits of each episode, though.)

As with the first series, there are no extras.

Overall

8

out of 10

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