Australian film-maker Fred Schepisi often deals with conflicts within communities or a family brought upon by destructive forces. His directorial debut, The Devil’s Playground (1976) was a witty and shrewd examination of the sexual repression and other constraints within a Catholic seminary. He followed it up with one of the best works in his oeuvre, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), based on the 1972 novel of same name by Thomas Keneally (who also wrote the Booker-prize winning novel Schindler’s Ark in 1982). The titular character in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a half-aborigine who gets bombarded with abuse from his white employers. At one point, his anger reaches a breaking point. Jimmie takes an ax to a houseful of children and women, and commits a horrifying massacre. In the process, the exploited Aboriginal man becomes a feared outlaw (the novel is based on the real story of bush-ranger Jimmy Governor). Even though, Mr. Schepisi details Jimmie’s brutal slaying of a white family in a disturbing manner, his views are all-inclusive, questioning the prejudices of white establishment that led the Aboriginal man to perpetrate a horrific act.
In the 1980s, Fred Schepisi started making films in US, including a decent western (‘Barbarosa’) and a comedy starring Steve Martin (‘Roxanne’). With the 1988 film, A Cry in the Dark (aka Evil Angels) Schepisi returned to Australia which was based on a major news story that made waves in and around Australian continent. Mr. Schepisi co-wrote the script with Robert Caswell; the tragic true event detailed in John Bryson’s non-fiction book (Evil Angels) remained as the source for the script. Although the events in ‘A Cry in the Dark’ take place after lot of decades than the crime detailed in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the director’s focus lies in portraying how a prejudiced society and the court of public opinion paints everything in black-and-white.
The protagonist in A Cry in the Dark leads a far better life than the oppressed Aboriginal lead character in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Lindy Chamberlain (Meryl Streep) is the wife of a Seventh-Day Adventist minister, Michael (Sam Neill) and a doting mother of two little sons and a infant daughter. The film opens with the christening of Lindy’s nine-week-old baby Azaria. A truck driver looking at the gathering of Seventh-Day Adventists passes a rude comment on them, hinting at the wide misunderstanding of the religious minority and also forebodes the harsh judgment that’s to be passed on the Chamberlain family.
Lindy and Michael take their two sons and their baby daughter on a camping trip to Ayers Rock. Michael cooks vegetarian sausages, Lindy bathes Azaria in a little tub, cold beers are passed around, tents are erected, and dingoes wait for the scraps thrown away by the campers. On the night of their stay, Lindy put Azaria to sleep in the tent. She briefly talks with another camper family before getting interrupted by the baby’s cry. The cry is cut-short abruptly and as Lindy returns to the tent, she sees a dingo emerging with something in its mouth, and runs off into the dark. There’s blood on the blanket. Panicked, Lindy runs to her husband screaming, “The dingo's got my baby!”
Wielding torches, the lawmen and fellow campers thoroughly search the area, and unable to find the baby they arrive at the obvious conclusion that the baby is dead. The tragedy that befell Chamberlein family, however, didn’t end there. Australian media and public didn’t want to believe in the story of dingo taking a baby. Moreover, Michael’s weird way of rationalizing 'why God would take their little daughter' in the news interviews puts him under the scrutiny of arm-chair pundits. The rumor mill and media circus begin to work together, quibbling over every little mannerism and action of the Chamberlein family. Their religious affiliation makes it easy to paint them as a villain, and soon Azaria’s death is alleged to be a ritual sacrifice. When the baby’s bloodied dress was found, the incompetent police force of Ayers Rock begin to rely on circumstantial evidence and obscure forensic reports to doubt Lindy. The initial assessment in the court rules in favor of Lindy, particularly condemning the media for the way it held public court of opinion.
Nevertheless, the lawmen allege that they found a bloody hand-print on the baby’s dress and that blood was found sprayed all over the underside of the dash board in the Chamberleins’ car. The case is reopened and Lindy becomes center of attention in a malicious campaign of slander. Director Schepisi often cuts the trials and tribulations faced by Michael and Linda to the dinner parties, saloons, and card games where the Australian public nonchalantly and repeatedly declares Lindy to be the guilty party. Lindy sees tee-shirts in front of courtroom decorated with words: “The Dingo is Innocent”. Some of the journalists seem to be worse than a baby-killing-dingo, who’d do anything for the sake of sniffing out a story. Even though Lindy is turned into an object of entertainment, she remains resolute, self-contained, and believes that at the end of the courtroom proceedings the truth will set her free.
At one point in the narrative, even Lindy’s lawyers ask her to emote more for the jury, at least to play the role of a grieving mother. Lindy just wants to be the way she is, but the perceived iciness is further claimed as the proof of her guiltiness. Michael reacts in a different manner from Lindy. Being a sensitive man, Michael buckles under the pressure. He’s assumed as the ‘weak’ accomplice to the ‘evil’ woman. Those who have never heard of Lindy’s story would be shocked by the verdict passed by the jury. She was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. After serving three-and-a-half years behind bars, a crucial piece of evidence proved that Lindy was innocent. An appeals court eventually overturned her conviction and Lindy was released. Lindy’s case is a classic example of miscarriage of justice, all happened because she was deemed guilty in the court of public opinion; an opinion persistently peddled by the ghouls and cutthroats in the media.
A Cry in the Dark clearly has more relevance in our times as the means for public to pass judgment on any idiosyncratic behavior has become much easier. Although this is the story of Lindy Chamberlein, Fred Schepisi meticulously crafts the story in a manner that it becomes the deeply felt portrait of a very judgmental community (which is universal in nature). The narrative could have used more ambiguity, but by unfolding the events from Lindy’s perspective, Schepisi intricately examines how far a society goes when it deems an individual unlikable. Furthermore, Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Lindy which allows her to be cynical and frigid adds more complexity to the drama. In fact, Schepisi’s decision to not approach Lindy’s tale as a true-crime mystery works pretty well due to Streep’s perfectly composed performance. And gradually, Streep’s Lindy earns our sympathy, not exactly because we ‘like’ her’, but because we believe in her innocence and due to the rage we feel over the press’ witch hunt. It’s interesting to see how the media doesn’t miss a beat when it covers Lindy’s exoneration with the same relish it showed when it was keen to put her behind bars. The things these malevolent beings do for a good story! How they twist a simple truth when exhibiting it in the public realm! And how our own lust for entertainment perceives everything in a binary manner!
Overall, A Cry in the Dark (120 minutes) is an unpretentious and outstanding dramatization of a court-case in which an individual is condemned for not behaving in the ‘right’ way.