Retro Review: Evil Angels

Evil Angles Cinema Australia

Sam Neill and Meryl Streep in Evil Angels.

Evil Angels (1988)

Written by David Morgan-Brown

The death of baby Azaria Chamberlain was one of those heart-wrenching news stories that captured the nation during a large part of the early ‘80s, a relatively small news story that ballooned into a national sensation heard around the world due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the controversial investigation. A mother’s claims that a dingo took her baby soon evolved, through symbiotic work from the crime investigation and the media, into an infanticide case. Suspicious evidence and lack of baby corpse eventually resulted in a guilty verdict for the Chamberlain parents, with Lindy convicted to life imprisonment, but was released after three years when new evidence supported her innocence and it seemed to put to rest this little story that took the nation’s interest, the biggest crime story of the ‘80s in Australia that turned out not to be a crime at all.

Whilst Lindy was still in jail, John Bryson put together a book detailing the case, titled Evil Angels, which was then quickly turned into a film to capitalise on an event that was becoming more and more tiresome and passé to the general public. Luckily one of the great Australian directors returned to working in his home country to helm it. Fred Schepisi, who had changed Australian cinema with his first two films (1976’s The Devil’s Playground and 1978’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), had been overseas making a number of different kinds of drama films (and a comedy) in America and Britain. He fortunately made the decision to return and bring us this most excellent filmic account focusing from the Chamberlains personal perspective of this whole ordeal.

There’s nothing particularly new or unique about how Schepisi and co have made Evil Angels, it just turns out to be a fantastically and often realistically made film about this tragic event and all the commotion that surrounded it. We only spend a bit of time with the Chamberlains, who appear happy and oblivious to the tragedy that is about to occur, as they mingle with the other families on vacation at Uluru before the film shows, somewhat clearly, baby Azaria being taken away by a dingo whilst Lindy watches on in horror, thus beginning this near endless series of events that becomes a huge and consistent news story.

One aspect of Evil Angels that does make it unique and stand out from quite a few others, even true-life films, is its omnipresent view of the media-savvy population of Australia, often interspersing quick scenes (or usually just single shots) showing the reactions and conversations of the general public in regards to this case, showing that most of them seem to be suckered in by the media and how it embellished and vaguely demonised the Chamberlains. In a time now where news can be reported as quickly as it occurs and opinions on social media about news stories are divulged before the entire story is in place, Evil Angels is an essential criticism of sensationalist news and the gullible general public that buy into it, perhaps now more than when the film was released.

Fronting this masterfully told story are two incredible performances that respectfully bring to life the Chamberlains. They both begin as very easy-going, laid-back Aussies who are celebrating the birth of their new daughter with a trip to Uluru. We get a glimpse of the sort of people they are for only a few scenes of camp-fire banter before the incident occurs, but we get the feeling they are (at this time) happily together and work as a very functional family. Even after the incident, they seem very close and compact as a household family, but it’s interesting to see the differences in how they cope as their baby’s disappearance and the ensuing investigation and media scrutiny affects them in different ways. Sam Neill, in all his subtle glory, shows the religious turmoil that affects Michael Chamberlain and causes him such spiritual pain that it even seems to stunt his physical presence, as seen when he finally takes the witness stand and his lawyer later calls him “the worst witness I’ve ever had” due to his extreme nervousness. Sam Neill can appear to be a rather sleepy actor who doesn’t always tap into the potential he has, but he gives one of his best in this film. Without having to spell it out explicitly in the dialogue, Neill’s Michael goes through a distraught form of grief that seems more prolonged than Lindy’s, as his remorse is elongated by the court trial that adds to the suffering of the couple, but especially him.

The key role of this story was Lindy Chamberlain and one of the biggest actresses in the world, a non-Australian, was given the part. Meryl Streep gives a passionate and truly heart-felt performance that exemplifies the distraught grief that has suddenly hit her. But as time goes on, her character ends up more accepting of the media storm surrounding the couple and appears to grow calmer of the whole situation than her husband, whilst still retaining the immense remorse and motherly innocence when she is put to trial. She ended up being nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards (one of her nineteen Oscar nominations), and won Best Actress awards at Cannes and (controversially for a non-Australian) at the AFI’s.

Typically for the ambitious Schepisi, having already helmed two highly budgeted Australian movies that barely broke even, Evil Angels was a lofty Australian production, the biggest at the time according to The Avocado Plantation, which states there were 350 speaking cast members and 4000 extras, all of which filmed in Melbourne, Darwin, and of course Uluru. And typically for Schepisi, the film didn’t do great business, given that this filmmaker often makes troubling subject matter the focus of most of his film productions from down under. Outside of Australia and New Zealand, the film was given a new title, A Cry in the Dark, which I prefer as it evokes the central scene of the film (where Lindy is running around and crying out in the dark of the night just after Azaria has been taken) and isn’t just a silly title that thinks it’s clever in its simple two-worded contradiction.

Whatever the title, Evil Angels is a stellar film from this country, one of the strongest in terms of powerful acting, a screenplay that balances the emotional resonance and the court-trial proceedings, and directing from Schepisi that is so confident that it brings out the best in his cast and crew. Evil Angels is perhaps the perfect account of this unusual story from Australia in the ‘80s, as it conveys all the chaos in a clear manner and treads very carefully as it illuminates the personal struggle this family faced, an aspect of the Chamberlains during this case that was most underreported.

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