31 Days of Oscar: “A Cry in the Dark”

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The biopic isn’t always about sunshine and daisies or overcoming adversity. Sometimes they’re really, really bleak. One event after the other is just another devastating blow, and makes it difficult to have hope that anything positive will ever break through all the misery.

The Warner Bros. film “A Cry in the Dark”, based on the book “Evil Angels” by John Bryson, is an engaging drama that after almost 30 years manages to draw you in at every moment. It’s a film that now goes beyond just retelling true events and serves as a rather harsh criticism of multiple but connected issues. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM) I’m now able to see this film in a whole new way. There’s so much to get and feel that I’m wondering how I didn’t remember it beforehand. This is why I love rewatching films. You’re bound to discover something you didn’t see before.

Court Of Public Opinion

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The biggest area this film surprised me with was with the portrayal of the media and the people of Australia focusing intently on the goings on involving Meryl Steep’s and Sam Neill’s characters, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain. I’d simply forgotten all about it and was able to respond accordingly. I was downright pissed and disgusted at just about every moment. The circus that was the investigation and subsequent trial was, to me, now with almost 40 years having gone by since the real life events and the film ready to reach its own round number, really just a precursor to what we’d get later on in the States. I can’t say Australia’s to blame, except in a joking way, but when you start comparing this trial and the media frenzy surrounding the Chamberlain’s to the Menendez brothers or O.J. Simpson, it’s a wonder anyone was surprised by the way everyone responded.

The media and those paying close attention to the investigations and trial, plus the first inquiry, are not portrayed kindly. Why should they be? They were pretty horrible, but while that may be so, it’s part of the reason this film is so intriguing. I couldn’t look away at all. It’s also where the biggest critique this film is making comes from. Criticisms about the way murder trials are broadcast are nothing new, particularly in this day and age. I think of Casey Anthony and Scott Peterson, to name two off the top of my head. I’m sure there are others. Criticism also comes in the fictitious form. A little book called Gone Girl, which was later adapted into a film, deals with exactly this. It’s a far cry from what is portrayed in this film (more like it’s on steroids), but really just shows how much the public loves to follow murder trials. How much they love to condemn people outright. Evidence need not be introduced. It also shows how any one person can drive a narrative and single handedly ruin the lives of those on trial, regardless of whether they’re innocent or guilty. I’d say too that the immediacy of information, only exacerbated by social media today, doesn’t do trials any favors. Instead of waiting for the local paper or news to report on that day’s events, we need only search online for quick blurbs, and then can form our opinions accordingly.

In this film, the brilliant criticism comes from the film regularly jumping back and forth from Streep and Neill, to the public at large and various members of the media. What seems to start out as regular coverage of a tragedy quickly turns into a kind of smear campaign. The Chamberlains, as seen in this film, are just too weird for the majority of people. Their story, of a Dingo taking their baby, is too farfetched to be believed. Anything and everything about them is scrutinized or made fun of in some way. Eventually, it becomes difficult to just discern what is fact from fiction. As the film goes on, you see the different public views and while some change, it’s largely negative. Hearing various characters offer up their views, sometimes getting into loud arguments or fights, not only offers you something to think about, on top of whatever it is you are thinking about, but gives you a solid idea of how crazy the circus really was. Nobody could really settle on an answer as to who killed this child, but it certainly got very heated at times. At the same time, it was also quite fascinating to see how people’s minds were changing. The trial no longer made as much sense, and doubt was starting to enter into it.

As I realized from thinking about this section and these aspects of the film, some of this has to do with the Australian legal system. I’m not going to pretend I understand what it was then or is now, because I have no idea. What I do know, it failed the Chamberlain’s. They were railroaded from the beginning, and the film seems to show this in many ways. The investigators, the media and the public at large certainly carried a fair share of blame for what happened to these people. Enough people were dead set against them, that nothing could’ve ever changed their minds. Too bad the benefit of the doubt was never given.

Perception Is Everything

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The other main issue being criticized in some way, which I also found surprising, is the idea of perception. The Chamberlain’s were not well received by the public at large. It cost them a lot. And while this issue stands on its own, it still finds itself linked to the court of public opinion. It’s really just one big connected circle.

Because of this perception issue, you also get some stellar performances from both Neill and Streep. I think they were both about equal, as they each had some tremendous amount of work to do and had to bring understanding to two vastly different characters. A primary issue is on the idea of how people grieve. This film shows that most people believe you need ugly cry face, among other things, to be perceived as normal. Streep and Neill were pretty much devoid of this typical appearance. Their general reactions, yes, seem weird, but not everybody responds the same way. That’s just a fact. There’s no right way to grieve. This found its way back to the Chamberlain’s religion. They were (are?) Seventh-day Adventists and apparently that wasn’t normal. So fly the rumors and the circus is off! Through all this, you had Streep and Neill delivering on all these complicated emotions. The depth you got from these performances not only made it really easy to sympathize with them, and feel nothing but hate for those who didn’t believe in their innocence, but also see why people didn’t believe them in the first place.

An interesting observation can be had here too. Streep’s character is smart. Smart enough in fact to wonder how so many people can be so dumb. During one scene, which is amazing to watch, she goes through the prosecution’s case. The story that’s going to prove she had a hand in killing her kid. As she does, she repeatedly points out how ridiculous it is that she could go from thing to thing to thing, all in the span of a short amount of time, have time to kill her kid and ultimately end up looking like she didn’t. This complicated narrative sounds exactly like that, complicated. Impossible. The way Streep delivered this bit of information really had me sold, and had me wondering if people truly believed this, and why? It makes no sense, but maybe that’s this modern world’s influences talking. It goes to show that if people had taken the time to actually analyze the information, they would’ve discovered so many flaws, that perhaps a trial could’ve been avoided altogether. But for that to have happened, they would’ve needed to change their views on these two devastated people.

Originally released: Nov. 11, 1988

Director: Fred Schepisi

Writer: Robert Caswell and Fred Schepisi

Starring: Meryl Streep, Sam Neill, Bruce Myles, Neil Fitzpatrick, Charles Tingwell, Maurie Fields, Nick Tate and Lewis Fitz-Gerald

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