“Off Country” is a beguiling, low-key documentary following seven indigenous students with scholarships to Geelong Grammar (and Timbertop, the school’s rugged camp famous for hosting Prince Charles many years ago). Beautifully shot west of Melbourne and in locations around Australia, the film, by definition, subscribes to no overarching storyline, and in its middle can feel slow. But skillful direction by Rhian Skirving and John Harvey carves out a powerful narrative by film’s end, exploring the nation’s fraught history; the lack of moral resolution even in 2021; belonging to two different worlds; and hopes and aspirations. The seven students are natural, intelligent, appealing subjects, and key Geelong Grammar teacher/activists are superb talking heads. Off Country is a rewarding film for both inquisitive Australians and non-Australians keen for insight.
Books that Made Us by Claudia Karvan [7/10]
Over three beguiling episodes, Claudia Karvan, a wonderful Australian actor, explores new and old Australian novels in “Books that Made Us.” These kind of shows can quickly bore, but Karvan clearly loves reading and her affection infuses every moment with readerly joy. Of course I enjoyed explorations of core books written by heroes of mine, such as Chris Tsiolkas, Tim Winton, Helen Garner, and Tara June Winch, but just as fascinating are her forays into novels I read as a young teen, including The Timeless Land by Eleanor Dark. The entire season of Books That Made Us is heartily recommended, not so much as for its menu of “books I should read” (although it certainly does supply this) but for an invigorating shot of readerly purposefulness.
The Echo Man by Sam Holland [6/10]
Taking the serial killer sub-genre as far as possible, “The Echo Man” plunges detectives Cara Elliott and Noah Deakin into a series of horrifying murders, soon revealed to be copycat killings mimicking the darkest of the dark, Kemper, Dahmer, Manson, on and on. At the same time, Jessica Ambrose is accused of murdering her husband but rescued by disgraced detective Nate Griffin, and both find themselves eerily linked to the baffling Echo Man spree. Debut author Sam Holland is a solid writer with a firm grip on a rollicking plot. The murders themselves are described with chilling realism, almost, it seemed to me, to the point of becoming serial-killer-porn. The Echo Man is a read best undertaken with a slight suspension of disbelief and a vacant evening, ending up as a horrific, hypnotic rush.
Shetland Season 6 [9/10]
By the time you front up to the sixth season of a police procedural like Shetland, you have to ask yourself: has this run its course? I found the fifth season of Shetland to be brilliant, centered on the galvanic intensity of Douglas Henshall as DI Jimmy Perez, and I’m pleased to report that, all expectations to the contrary, Season 6 is another dose of the same but even more powerful. In this season, a popular lawyer is gunned down on his doorstep, a huge roster of suspects includes his wife, a rich businessman, and an ex-soldier with PTSD. Throw in Perez’s mother’s death and the dementia of his father, and the return of a previous season’s murderer with terminal cancer, and the plot is wonderfully baffling. The supporting cast of Alison O’Donnell and Steven Robertson as sidekicks Tosh and Sandy, plus Mark Bonnar as friend Duncan, is as strong as ever, but it’s Henshall as Perez who draws the viewer in. Once upon a time he looked like a hunk, now he has fleshed out and has the visage of a haunted obsessive. Breathe in the first five episodes of Season 6, crime fiction lovers, then gird yourselves for a transcendent final episode in which Henshall gives you a Jimmy Perez triumphant but at the end of his tether. Me, I was left breathless.