Our rating: 2 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
Our rating: 2 out of 5
Set in the barren landscape of rural Australia, The Road from Coorain is the ultimate story of personal triumph over tragedy. It satisfies on an intellectual level but fails on many others. It's never uninteresting or fulfilling but leaves a lot to be desired in its characters. Set in the 1950's on a sheep ranch, five year old Jill Ker is perfectly happy. They have just drilled a new well, the season promises a good wool harvest, and her parents (Juliet Stevenson and Richard Roxburgh) and older brothers are all well. Despite the boil on her leg, Jill is the picture of contentment. But after her brothers are sent away to boarding school to further their educations and become "something aside from a sheep farmer," her life takes a dramatic turn. The outback falls beneath a hot spell. When it doesn't rain, sheep don't grow fat. When they're not plump, they often die out in storms. By the end of the year the family is almost destitute.
While the story is about Jill (played as an adult by Katherine Slattery), most of it revolves around her mother. Eve is a strong woman, staunchly Protestant, determined, and headstrong. If Bill had never happened along, she wouldn't have gotten married. She's strong-willed. When she learned she was pregnant with a third child, she tried "every witchery in her nursing book" to get rid of the baby, but a higher power destined Jill to come into the world. When the doctor told her having this child would kill her, Eve wasn't about to let some man dictate her life and thus the daughter was brought into the world. Bill wants to give up, sell or burn the rest of the sheep, and wait it out. He also wants to bring his boys home to work the ranch so they can let their hired hands go. Eve is adverse to this idea, clinging to her philosophy that they can ride any wave life throws at them. But then one wave comes they weren't anticipating... while attempting to fix a water pump, Bill is drowned. Suddenly they are left without a husband, father, and protector. The tragedy unleashes the worst in Eve and her children suffer for it, but soon pull away and form their own lives.
The acting in this production is beautiful, particularly from Juliet Stevenson, who broke our hearts in Truly Madly Deeply and made us tremble as Mrs. Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby. She is strict but always likable even at her worst moments. Her scenes when wracked with sorrow at her husband's death are particularly moving, since she never cries... she merely shakes with repressed anger and grief. Richard Roxburgh also has a particularly moving scene with his daughter when he talks about survival, and how she's inherited her mother's natural instinct. The scenes of them dancing together in the barn are very moving, made all the more heartbreaking for the tide to come. The score is also surprisingly memorable. Overall it was very well made and while it moves at a measured pace, it's never dull. Unfortunately the morals aren't always good and the studio decided to see how much near nudity they could get away with. Several times figures are blatantly nude but their private areas are obscured with furniture. Eleven-year-old Jill eyes some naked men from the car as they drive home (backside only, in a completely pointless scene).
She also engages as an adult in several sexual affairs (there are two graphic sex scenes, one of them clothed and lengthy, the other brief), including one with a married man. She does eventually give him up (not wanting to "take another father from a child") but should have never chased him in the first place. There's some innuendo and sexual dialogue. Her mother tells her think with her head, and not what's "between her legs." Mild profanity comes up on occasion. It's really too bad Masterpiece Theatre chose to exploit these flaws rather than gloss over them. They're faithful to the story of a true woman's life but were irresponsible in the telling.