Savage River review – small town mystery is never terrible but never surprising either | Television
Yesou know the drill: a protagonist with a complicated past returns to his hometown, bringing old tensions to the surface. This town, of course, is riddled with mysterious deaths and disappearances, like every second rural spot in Australian film and television. Such settings and plot scenarios draw our storytellers like moths to the flame. And they’re dusted again in Savage River, a six-part series crafted with a certain atmospheric elegance by veteran director Jocelyn Moorhouse that lacks punch and invokes a serious case of deja vu.
Given the familiarity of the premise, which brings Miki (Katherine Langford, of 13 Reasons Why Fame) back to her hometown after serving 10 years in prison, the screenwriters (Giula Sandler, Belinda Bradley, Franz Docherty, Angie Fielder and Polly Staniford) needed to work especially hard to come up with something new. However, the show gorges itself on formula and locks itself into an unhappy pace where each new plot development feels right, old and designed to advance the narrative in a particular way.
I found myself constantly guessing at the experience rather than being swept away by the currents of the story. Unsubtle water-related metaphors and symbolism are part of the experience: the titular “wild river” being beautiful but, indeed, rather wild, or at least the scene of several crimes. I half wanted to see the writers lean into this concept in a schlocky way, summoning a crazy old character to warn people to stay away from water, yelling “that haunted river, haaaaunnnttteeedd!”
But the tone is serious, invoking double mysteries linked by place but separated in time, structurally reminiscent of The Dry and The Gloaming. One is about a death that happened a long time ago, for which Miki served her prison sentence. The second mystery involves a recent death, occurring shortly after the protagonist’s return, making her the prime suspect.
Upon her return, Miki reconnects with her twin brother Terry (Cooper van Grootel) and meets her niece Ocean (Hannah Bickerton). In a plot development that makes it clear that Smell-O-Vision never became a thing, she also lands a job as a “gut sorter” at the local butcher shop, where owner Kevin (Daniel Henshall) takes advantage of her employees, many of whom are refugees.
If there weren’t enough jiggery-pokery in this small community already, one of the butcher shop employees seems to have disappeared, adding a mysterious third installment. There’s also a local mayoral election that pits a grumpy former incumbent against a young, progressive candidate. This political context does not exactly position the drama in the face of the fires of revolution, but you know that the election will have meaning later.
There are early indications that the cast, while capable, won’t deliver hard-hitting performances. Jacqueline McKenzie comes closest as the Weeping Widow, but the focus is more on Langford, who pulls off a main (“mysterious”) mode but doesn’t take it to places of interest. Miki isn’t a particularly likable character and therefore we don’t care much about her background – which is crucial to the narrative.
Moorhouse offsets the script’s dark elements with a soft, tactile style that’s pleasing but doesn’t feel entirely suited to the material. Veteran cinematographer Don McAlpine – whose career dates back to Australian new wave productions such as Don’s Party, My Brilliant Career and Breaker Morant, as well as Hollywood classics including the 1987 action flick Predator – brings lots of air and light in the frame, but Savage River is a minor work in the repertoire of the discerning eye.
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The same goes for Moorhouse, whose movies include Proof and The Dressmaker, as well as TV productions she co-directed, like the gorgeous Wakefield and the excellent Stateless. In Savage River, Moorhouse’s soft touch brings elegance but reduces the impact of the drama, which is never terribly executed but (due to over-reliance on formula) very “so what?”
While the visuals look organic, the writing feels contrived. There are several references, for example, to a fireworks celebration in episode two (this review encompasses the first four), building anticipation for an event that will obviously be used to stage a twist or reveal. which changes the situation. The scenario is full of moments that are too neat, too staged, too marked out, too calculated. It’s like we’ve been down this river many times before.