The case of Lindy Chamberlain, who would go in the eyes of an avid public from a bereft and grieving mother to “the most hated woman in Australia,” is certainly one of most outrageous episodes in that country’s legal history. Yet there something almost cleansing about the tone that director Fred Schepisi sets in “A Cry in the Dark,” (citywide), his masterly and resonating film about the Chamberlains that may really be about all of us.
He begins foursquarely in 1980 with the incident which even eight years later is good for snaps and snarls of conflicting opinion in his native Australia. As we meet the Chamberlain family--Michael (Sam Neill) and Lindy (Meryl Streep), their two young sons and infant daughter--Schepisi is not without an eye for the ironies in their lives but he’s not without tenderness either.
We see 9-week-old Azaria in the details that a rapt parent would--the perfect roundness of her head, her tiny hands, her beautiful face and eyes. Then in the early evening at Ayers Rock, a Northern Territory tourist mecca, a dingo, the coyote-like wild dog of Australia, enters the Chamberlain’s tent and baby Azaria is never seen again.
This is horrifying stuff; you could call it a family’s darkest fear except that these facts are so bizarre that they tower over everyday fears. They’re part of what kept tongues and tabloids and TV talk shows busy for years. But as he and co-screenwriter Robert Caswell present the story’s mounting abuses carefully, delicately, Schepisi gives his fury a laser-like clarity.
The fact that the Chamberlains were Seventh-day Adventists did not vastly improve their popularity in Australia. The tragedy fanned grotesque misconceptions about a little-understood sect. The cornerstone of their faith, that there will be a Resurrection Day in which the living and the dead will be joined, gave Lindy, in particular, a serene calm which was deciphered as “unnatural.”
All that was needed was the buzz that the unusual name Azaria (actually “Blessed of God”) meant “sacrifice in the wilderness” for the country to decide that Lindy was a monster. Even after a point-by-point acquittal at the initial inquest, the case gripped the public.
What was at work, the film makers eloquently show, was a mixture of provincialism, smug, shoddy police work and religious bigotry. Even dingo pride surfaced. A second inquest was held: Astoundingly, Lindy was charged with her daughter’s death and Michael as an accessory after the fact.
As he measures and sifts the details, Schepisi makes a hero or a martyr out of no one. Yes, there’s a certain initial smugness about Michael Chamberlain that makes us cringe, the smoothness of the door-to-door Bible salesmen. We notice too that, while the family can’t afford a motel room the night of the tragedy, Michael has every gadget for his camera and a preoccupation with material things which seems a little at odds with his position as a pastor in his church.
It’s what makes Michael’s character almost more interesting than Lindy’s. His fall from this plastic-wrapped pride, his awful disintegration and self-doubt later is played wrackingly by Neill, who captures every small shift and nuance with intelligence. Lindy’s basic qualities are less dramatic: strength, unwavering faith and a prickly resistance to being packaged for the public. Wearing a black wig which duplicates Lindy’s trial hair-style, swellingly pregnant and growingly vituperative, Streep dares monumentally. Lashing out at her own attorneys, mocking their advice--"Don’t hold your mouth that way. You’ll look too cross and crabby"--her voice is nasal and unlovely, and her fascination has never been greater. It’s a performance to annihilate those who see her facility with accents as “all” there is to her art.
Streep and Neill are the film’s perfectly matched thoroughbreds. But the film is neither a double star turn nor the best kind of courtroom drama; it is a sort of epic mosaic of national character. With the same painstaking care that made John Bryson’s “Evil Angels,” the book on which the film is based, incontrovertible, Schepisi builds his mosaic with Australian faces and voices crisscrossing every social class and occupation.
Schepisi goes beyond the easy targeting of the media as villains (although he has a great visualization of the Chamberlains’ harassment when the two are pinned and buffeted outside their house by gusts from a pair of low-flying camera helicopters.) His deepest anger goes to non-thinkers and gossip-mongers; to the Yahoo-thinking that produced the Crown’s utterly unsubstantiated case against Lindy. It extends to those who get a salacious thrill from word of cults or ritual murders, and in that, his continent is hardly alone.
If “A Cry in the Dark” sounds remote, part of aboriginal mystery or Australian “otherness,” a glance at this week’s magazines and newspapers protesting trash TV should make it plain how much this story has to say to Americans.
‘A CRY IN THE DARK’
A Warner Bros. release of a Cannon Entertainment/Golan-Globus production in association with Cinema Verity Ltd. Producer Verity Lambert. Executive producers Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus. Line producer Roy Stevens. Director Fred Schepisi. Screenplay Robert Caswell, Schepisi based on the book “Evil Angels” by John Bryson. Camera Ian Baker. Editor Jill Bilcock. Music Bruce Smeaton. Production design Wendy Dickson, George Liddle. Art direction Dale Duguid, Brian Edmonds. Costumes Bruce Finlayson. Sound Gary Wilkins. With Meryl Streep, Sam Neill, Bruce Myles, Charles Tingwell, Nick Tate, Neil Fitzpatrick, Maraie Fields, Debra Lawrance, Lewis Fitz-gerald.
Running time: 2 hour, 1 minute.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13).