3 JUNE 1989, Page 39


A Cry in the Dark (`15', selected cinemas)

Streep show

Hilary Mantel

Agentleman has written from Texas to ask, 'Could you say a few things about Meryl Streep?' A few bad things, he means. One tries to see his point. It is disconcerting that there seems no limit to her versatility; there is a ruthless quality to her command of our imaginations. The truth is that we distrust virtuosity. The nearer a performer comes to formal perfec- tion, the more we refuse to be delighted; we say they have no heart. We worry in the same way over Sylvie Guillem, the Royal Ballet's new star, whose accomplishment leaves audiences reeling and critics some critics anyway — muttering that if they want to see an acrobat they'll go to the circus. Then again, consider how un- gratefully the cricketing public receives the stupendous feats of Graeme Hick . . . but this is not a point one can pursue with a Texan. Back to Streep. You could, if you must carp, say that in her new film she offers not so much a performance as an impersonation. But it is magnificent all the same.

The story is well-known. In 1980, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, a young Aus- tralian couple of quite sickening religiosity, take their two sons and their newborn daughter on a camping trip to Ayers Rock. Michael Chamberlain is a fervent anti- smoking campaigner and a minister in the Seventh Day Adventist church; Lindy is an ungainly toughie in tennis socks. Michael sizzles his vegetarian sausages; Lindy coos,

over her baby; jolly campers foregather, pass around the cold beers, and throw scraps to the scavenging dingoes who lurk around the tents. On the second night of the holiday, the bonhomie around the barbie is interrupted by a sharp cry. Mrs Chamberlain makes for the tent where she has left ten-week-old Azaria, and sees a dingo emerging with something in its mouth. She goes into the tent; the baby has gone. She and the other screaming, panick- ing, torch-wielding and bush-trampling campers rush to the obvious conclusion. The rest of Australia does not share it. Soon teeshirts are on sale emblazoned with the legend, 'The Dingo is Innocent'.

Fred Schepisi's film is a harrowing, moving, clever piece of work. Based on Evil Angels by John Bryson, said to be the best of the books in this macabre and celebrated case, it has to set before the viewer a lot of complicated facts; it does this succinctly, in a narrative style that employs no tricks but has considerable subtlety. Robert Caswell's screenplay is well-judged, and his task cannot have been easy, because in such extremities few people's language rises to the occasion; he has navigated the difficult course between bathos and implausible fluency. And, simply because the facts are so well- known, it is the film's comment on them that must hold the viewer; Schepisi offers a wholly successful blend of black comedy and gaping indignation. The actors in the

drama are not merely the Chamberlains and the dingo; on the trail of the dingo come the journalists, sniffing out a good story, chewing and mauling it to their preferred shape. The director shows us that the police with their blundering tactics and the lawyers with their absurd confron- tational style are never likely to hit on the truth except by accident. As for the ghoul- ish public, they take exception to the incursion of raw nature, and prefer to speculate about cut throats and human sacrifice; when Lindy is on trial for mur- der, they form a sniggering and malicious jury, and take votes on chat shows about her guilt or innocence.

Streep plays Lindy as a self-contained and sardonic woman, with a bitter relish for the battle with her persecutors; her beautifully modulated and expert perform- ance should not overshadow that of Sam Neill as her husband, whose initial pious resignation gives way to shivering collapse in the witness box. That the Chamberlains are not naturally likeable, not naturally pitiable, gives the narrative the edge that documentary drama sometimes lacks. We know the story — Lindy, convicted, was released last year — but until the end we do not know how our own convictions will settle.

This is unpretentious, combative, self- confident cinema. I liked it as much as anything I've seen this year. And the woman in the next seat wept buckets.