Appellate Judge James A. Stewart lived on Cloud Street, until he was flooded out.
"Who's going to pay to live with the lucky Pickles?"
In Australia, Tim Winton's world was already familiar stuff. A bestseller from a man whom Acorn introduces to Americans as "the preeminent Australian novelist of his generation," Cloudstreet has been adapted with Winton's help into a six-part mini-series.
Facts of the Case
Samuel Pickles, who lost his fingers in an accident while working on a boat, inherits a house on Cloud Street in Perth. Since it's a huge house and he's perpetually broke, he decides to rent half of it out. The takers are the Lambs, who've lost their farm and have been sleeping outside. "I'm sure it's only temporary," Dolly Pickles says, hopefully. However, their story lasts from 1943 into the '60s.
I'd expect that lots of Cloudstreet viewers have already read the book, since the production often seems like it's evoking that work. The book is referenced sweetly with chapter titles and lines of narration. It's evoked less sweetly, for newcomers, by blink-or-you'll-miss-it appearances by characters who must have played larger roles in the print version, a pace that can seem a bit rushed even at around six hours, and the occasional lack of explanation that readers must have come into it with.
Viewers who haven't seen Cloudstreet (a group that includes me) will probably be left wondering a bit, even to the point of not being quite sure what sort of story it is. Most is a period drama about two Perth families, with heavy doses of soap opera, especially in the strand of Dolly Pickles, who's interrupted from an extramarital tryst by her daughter Rose, who brings news of her husband's accident.
However, there are some eerie notes that send the story in a different direction. The shots of the house are often imposing and the interiors feature shafts of light coming through blinds. With a discordant accompanying score, often including some really creepy house noises, you might expect the story to go Amityville on you. Some surreal things, like a talking pig or a bird that poops coins, will only keep you wondering. Cloudstreet manages to keep viewers bouncing between the real world of Perth's past and the surreal world throughout, even in its conclusion. In the hands of director Michael Saville, that bouncing produces some effective moments, most often in the hubbub of reaction from both families to some crisis in the house.
Cloudstreet plunges viewers right into the story, starting with a jumbled, chaotic depiction of a fishing accident that nearly kills young Fish Lamb and apparently left him with both brain damage and unusual abilities. He can teleport a dog in his dreams, but, as with a lot of the story, director Saville lets Fish's scenes unfold in a way that keeps curiosity high. The relationship between Fish (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Before the Rain) and his brother Quick (Todd Lasance, Home and Away) is one of the most interesting story threads, played with warmth.
The two fathers in the story are different in some ways—Sam Pickles (Stephen Curry, Neighbours) is a hard-drinking gambler, while Lester Lamb (Geoff Morrell, Home and Away) is a teetotaler who takes charge of fixing up the house—but both share an easygoing nature that makes them fast friends. Not so with the mothers. Oriel Lamb (Kerry Fox, An Angel at My Table) is all business, quickly setting up a small grocery and declaring war on a rival; Dolly Pickles (Essie Davis, The Matrix Revolutions) isn't so friendly, especially when Oriel's rival turns out to be her latest fling. Dolly's wild life also creates conflict, most notably in a scene involving vomiting from a night out.
Rounding out the major cast is Emma Booth (Blood Creek) as Rose Pickles, whose tart tongue has been honed on years of arguments with her mother, who belittles and eventually crushes her college aspirations.
The production is beautiful and dreamlike, with scenes like Fish touching and moving stars in the sky handled well. The sounds are reproduced well, although they are often pounding or screeching in some unsettling way.
Acorn's three-DVD set includes a disc of extras. They seem to be mostly features made by the Australian network that presented Cloudstreet. They're informative, but at the same time repetitive. I'd suggest looking through the menu and picking out a few that interest you. If you like Cloudstreet at all, you're bound to want to check them out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are a number of surreal and supernatural elements in Cloudstreet, but it's largely a period soap opera. The story's two directions are melded well, even as the production leans toward the surreal. Still, if that melding just doesn't sound like something you'd be interested in, you'll probably want to move far away from Cloudstreet by the end of the first episode. Even if it does sound interesting, it feels like the production was made for existing fans of the novel, with some things going by as a blur to those who haven't read it.
The DVD set should probably be sold with the novel, because if you like the mini-series, you're sure to want to read the book.
Even director Michael Saville says he isn't quite sure how Cloudstreet came together into a form that people enjoy. I'm not sure either, but his stylish-if-choppy direction combined with strong performances managed to propel viewers forward through the story nicely. The mini-series doesn't explain, it just is; flowing over us, leaving us surprised and puzzled.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
Review content copyright © 2012 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.