The highly-anticipated new Aussie psychological thriller The Clearing has premiered globally. Get ready for a disconcerting and disturbing ride.
What I’ve seen of The Clearing (all four of the screeners provided by Hulu) intrigued, irritated, and disturbed me, not necessarily in that order. After watching the fourth episode, I have more of a grasp about certain aspects of the story, but I am still not entirely clear about what is really going on, as there are a lot of moving, intersecting, and seemingly disparate (but perhaps connected later) parts to the narrative so far.
The Clearing is based on the best-selling novel In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare, a fictionalized tale about a real-life cult in Australia that was headed by a woman. In the series, Miranda Otto (The Daughter, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) plays the leader of The Kindred, a woman with a messiah complex who is by turns called Adrienne or Matria by certain adults, and always referred to as “Mommy” (pronounced “mummy”) by the bleached-blond, brainwashed youngsters she calls her children.
Teresa Palmer (A Discovery of Witches, Hacksaw Ridge) plays Freya, a protective, single mother whose paranoia about her son, Billy (Flynn Wandin), being abducted is clearly not just from hearing the news reports about a girl who was snatched by someone in a white van while walking home. Her panic indicates personal experience. The clue here is Amy, the name people still call Freya, the name she says she doesn’t use anymore. Amy was in the opening scene, although as a 13-year-old girl (Julia Savage, Mr. Inbetween) with a bleached-blonde bob, talking to an 8-year-old brunette girl named Sara (Lily LaTorre, Run Rabbit Run), who is hauled off in a van, renamed Asha, and dyed blonde as the latest member of The Kindred. And Amy is what Adrienne calls the adult Freya.
So we have a dual timeline, one that continues through (at least) Episode 4. Except viewers have to work harder than usual to get this, because it is only delineated through the action, and there is a lot of overlap in the action and characters, several of whom look nearly identical in the past and present, further confusing things. (Keeping viewers off-balance to build suspense can work well in storytelling, but here the back and forth muddles the storytelling and is really annoying.)
Back to Sara/Asha: Sara is my favorite character so far (most likely the whole series). A smart, spirited girl with a strong sense of self for someone her age, she knows that her name is Sara, not Asha, that Mommy is not her real mum, and that this horrible place they’ve brought her to is not her home, no matter what Amy and the other kids say. So Adrienne puts “big girl” Amy in charge of Asha to help her learn their ways; only things don’t work out as well as they wanted, and the emotional abuse heaped on Amy is brutal.
As Detective Senior Constable Yusuf “Joe” Saad (Hazem Shammas, The Secrets She Keeps) looks into Sara’s disappearance in one scene, he attempts to do the same in the next, only it’s years later for the missing girl that Freya saw on the news. People from Freya’s past reappear in her life in the present, as she confronts both the demons of the past that reside within her as well as the individuals who contributed to her living nightmare. But what, if anything, will she do to stop more children from being abducted and coerced into The Kindred?
Through Episode 4, the narrative doesn’t provide the backstory for Adrienne, but we can glean how the adult members of The Kindred came to trust her, join her, and believe in the perfect world she’s out to create with her clearings, gaslighting, and more. As the series progresses, we also learn more about how many of the children became members of Matria’s family — except for Amy (at least through the first half of the series).
Miranda Otto is freakishly good as Adrienne/Matria, a character who disgusted me and gave me the willies in nearly equal measure, and angered me to no end for her cruel manipulation of vulnerable individuals, children and adults alike. Both Julia Savage and Lily LaTorre are terrific as the young Amy and Sara, as are Erroll Shand (True Colours), Anna Lise Phillips (Irreverent), and Kate Mulvany (Hunters) as cult members Henrik, Hannah, and Tamsin, espectively. However, Teresa Palmer’s performance as Freya/Amy is (disappointingly) underwhelming, and the talents of Guy Pearce (Jack Irish) as senior Kindred member Dr. Bryce Latham, and Mark Coles Smith (Mystery Road: Origin) as Freya’s former partner, Wayne, are underused.
Still, The Clearing is an intriguing watch and worth checking out.
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