|A Cry in the Dark|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 December 1999|
In 1980, Michael (Neill) and Lindy (Streep) Chamberlain left their home in Mt. Isa, Queensland, and took their two sons and their infant daughter Azaria on a vacation trip to Ayers Rock, one of the principal holiday vacation spots in Australia. The huge red rock on the wide flat plains of the Outback has been featured so often in other movies that it's familiar to audiences the world over; it's almost familiar, a tame, inviting oddity.
Director Fred Schepisi, an Australian himself, quickly establishes the camaraderie of the vacationers at the Rock, as they chat among themselves and have group barbecues. A few dingos -- big yellow wild dogs -- hang around the camp begging for scraps, which delights the kids. But when another woman and Michael hear a baby's cry cut off in the middle (despite the title, it's almost inaudible), Lindy goes back to their tent -- to see a dingo carrying off Azaria's bleeding body.
She and Michael try to keep their wits about them as the other vacationers and park rangers scour the night desert for the child -- even though everyone, including Lindy, acknowledges the baby has to be dead. No body is found, just her slightly torn and bloody jumpsuit; the little "matinee" jacket she was wearing cannot be located.
After the usual nine-days-wonder, things seem to quiet down. But in the excellent, astute script by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi, working from John Bryson's book Evil Angels (the film's Australian title), we see how suspicion grows the country over. Australians had a somewhat sentimental, romanticized view of dingos -- as if the animals, Australia's only land predators of any size, were lovable dogs who just happened to live in the wild. Few wanted to believe that a dingo would do something as awful as kill, much less eat, a human baby; throughout the film, the phrase "The dingo is innocent!" recurs, in speeches, on T-shirts, on banners.
The Chamberlains grant many television and print interviews, hoping that others might learn from their mistrust of the (usually pretty tame) Australian wild. But they were (and still are) Seventh-Day Adventists; Michael was a lay minister in his church, and throughout the movie struggles desperately with the question of why God would allow such a horrendous thing to happen. Lindy is made of sterner stuff; she grieves, mostly privately, but tries to go on with her life; she even insists on getting pregnant again.
But their religion set them apart from the rest of Australia; an absurd, but widely-believed, rumor swept the country: "Azaria," the rumor claimed, meant "sacrifice in the desert." And more and more people came to believe that Lindy had murdered her own child as part of a macabre Seventh-Day Adventist ritual.
The police for the region were embarrassed by being unable to locate the baby, and internal politics created further strife. Even though a coroner's jury found that, just as the Chamberlains and witnesses claimed, a dingo had carried Azaria away, a year after the baby's death, Lindy was arrested for her murder, and Michael as her accomplice.
The trial was the sensation of Australia; Schepisi depicts this nation-wide furor with economy and precision, cutting again and again to brief scenes in bars, on golf courses, in offices, in homes, as people discuss the case, bringing up wilder and wilder speculation. He also returns frequently to low helicopter shots approaching Ayers Rock; whatever else is happening, the Rock -- and its dingoes -- is still there.
Just before the trial, Lindy describes what, if she were guilty, must have happened, and it's utterly absurd. But that is what the Crown contends, and they have experts in forensic evidence to back them up. But little by little, Schepisi shows that this "evidence" is really nothing of the sort, that the prosecution overlooked obvious, exculpatory details in the interests of advancing their case. But he also shows that the defense relies too heavily on hard-to-understand scientific evidence, and that Lindy's rather cold demeanor on the stand does her case no good at all. The verdict shook Australia -- but there was an aftermath.
Schepisi never sentimentalizes anything; the movie is cool, dispassionate and objective. But since he has the perspective of knowing what the truth really was, he doesn't have to beg the Chamberlains' case. He does show us how badly shaken Michael becomes; he scratches his head until he bleeds, and he is so rattled, so fearful, that his testimony harms his case.
Streep dominates the film because Lindy is a stronger, more forceful -- if more aloof -- character than Michael, but Neill's performance is quietly brilliant. Hesitant, honest to a fault, fond of his fame, Michael is a shy man who's suddenly found an audience bigger than he expected. He's pleased by this, but devastated by the child's death, and his inability to fit this into his view of God. Again, Schepisi understates this; all of Neill's collapses are realistic and ring completely true.
The movie is brisk and fast-paced, taking us quickly through a story that turns out, when you glance back, to have been packed densely with a great deal of information. It's a model of this kind of movie, and deserves to be better known than it currently is.
Perhaps this tidy little DVD from Warners will do that. There's nothing exceptional about the packaging -- the movie practically cries out for commentary track it doesn't have -- but at least this sturdy, intelligent movie now has a home on video collection shelves.