When the shows co-director says the script affected him “emotionally and psychologically”, you know the new Australia series The Clearing is going to be somewhat mind-melding. However, it does prompt valid conversations about control, power and the longevity of trauma.
Adapted from JP Pomare’s novel In the Clearing, the eight-part series echoes the story of the Family, a real-life Australia cult that “stole” children through misleading adoptions and manipulation of unmarried mothers.
At its peak they had roughly 500 members anchored around Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a Melburnian The Guardian describes as “a glamorous purveyor of yoga to bored, wealthy suburban mums”.
The Clearing isn’t a straight retelling of that history but takes from its inspiration to tell the story of “the Kindred”, a cult that’s gathering children to fulfill a sinister master plan. Adrienne (Miranda Otto) is the aloof leader, and Freya (Teresa Palmer) is a reformed cult member who has to confront her past when she hears of a child abduction on her local area.
Guy Pearce (Mare of Easttown, Memento), Claudia Karvan (June Again, Bump) and Xavier Samuel (The Twilight Saga, Fury) all also appear in the series, alongside Underbelly alumni Hazem Shammas and Class of 07’s Julia Savage.
The subject matter isn’t “light” by any stretch but offers considered dialogue about how people get swept up in “movements” and what compels someone to be part of something that to the outside world is so clearly unhinged.
“A takeaway for me [from the series] is about our need to belong,” Hazem told Hope 103.2.
Playing police officer Joe, who’s both a friend to Freya and someone investigating the abduction, Hazem sees a universal need portrayed.
“From getting a mothers approval, to needing to fit in as a cop, or needing to be a member of a cult, we all need to feel like we belong and sometimes you might fall into the wrong camp to get that sense,” he said.
As one of the head girls of Adrienne’s cult, Julia’s character Amy is drawn to her as a leader because “she’s got a very goddess-like air about her”.
“She’s got this charm and this charism – this flair – that would lure a lot of people,” Julia said.
“Appearing as this Queen-like figure for [Amy], she would do everything her power to please her.”
What Hazem finds confronting is the power Adrienne, or “Mummy”, also wields over the adults who “should know right from wrong but turned a blind eye to all the wrong that’s going on”.
Previewing the first two episodes of The Clearing, with its unnerving tone, reminds you of Australia’s ability to tell these kinds of stories well: we have a knack with either psychological thrillers or comedy – the middle ground isn’t as well visited.
But “why make anything else?” Hazem said.
“Go to the extremes of our humanity.”
“[Australia] is good at a lot of things,” Julia said.
“This is such a vast industry of incredible creative people, but we’re pretty good at this.”
At 16 and having already played quite dramatic characters across her work on Mr. Inbetween and Blaze – for which she was the youngest ever nominee for best Actress in a leading Role at the AACTA Awards – Julia Savage didn’t hesitate to take on the role of Amy.
“I really do enjoy when the characters are meaty,” Julia said.
“I really enjoy the complex roles because it means you get to immerse yourself more in it and you get that experience of fully inhabiting a character.”
Hazem said the role of Joe “chose him”, but he relishes in getting to bring a character to life that’s unique on Australian screens.
“[Joe]’s the son of migrants so he’s familiar in Australia in that respect,” Hazem said.
“But usually the way we tackle [migrant characters] unfortunately becomes about explaining their ‘otherness’ in the Australian landscape, or them struggling with their ‘otherness’ and coming to terms with their sense of being in Australia.
“They’re wonderful stories to tell [but] in this one [Joe’s heritage] was just a subtle underscore.”
The Clearing is streaming on Disney+ now.