Rain Shadow: articles

A drama for these dry times

A new series takes a hard look at the realities of life in towns dying for water, writes Graeme Blundell | October 06, 2007

BONE deep in landscape, Rain Shadow is a moving moral drama about two contrasting women battling drought in the small dryland farming community of Paringa. It's television drama that resonates with the desperate, doom-laden situation presently facing farming people across Australia.

Mysteriously widowed Kate McDonald (Rachel Ward) has been the local veterinarian for 15 years. After a string of failed assistants she is sent Jill Blake (Victoria Thane), youthful, ambitious and desperate to establish herself away from her well-known veterinary parents.

Despite acknowledging she knows little of life in a farming community, Jill is instantly suspicious of the skewed morality of rain-shadow land, where the atmosphere itself creates an illusion of fate and mystery.

A rain shadow is the dry region behind a mountain, out of the direction of the wind. As moist air masses rise to the top of the windward side of the range, the air cools and water vapour condenses as rain and falls on the top, leaving the mountain's far side deprived of the moisture.

And while Paringa, the show's fictional town and district, means "home by the water" in a South Australian Aboriginal language, there is nothing hospitable about it. The spectre of debt looms and Paringa is a town of failed businesses and for sale signs.

It has become a place of abstinence, absence and unsettling quietness. In this series the landscape tells the story of the country's fortunes, the complete geography on the screen, from ranges to badlands to desolate paddocks to industrial farming wreckage rusting alongside dusty corrugated roads.

Women leave their husbands, who banish any whiff of perfume from their empty houses. Eggs and meat function as cash and the banks will take no more sheep to settle debt. "Sorry about your dad," Kate says to a farmer whose father has died. "You know what they say, one less mouth to feed," he answers.

It's a town that's been on its last legs for decades and 12 years of drought have all but finished it off. "The sun has sucked all the juice out," Jill says. "Walking roadkill, that's us," Kate replies.

The Long Paddock, the series' opening story, is a little slow but full of ideas and strong characters. There are many storylines, including Kate's husband's strange death, the distress of sheep disease, the brutality of mercy killings, the blithe exploitation of other' misfortunes by the local bullies and the dark secrets that challenge the district's destiny.

To say nothing of the eerie presence of cat-loving, pig-hunting, well-read biker Larry Riley (Gary Sweet in wonderful form) and his underworld associates.

Rain Shadow has the feel of a big novel, one of those complex reads set in an exotic location with plot strands and story points woven subtly together to build unexpected climaxes.

"We wanted to tell a strong story in a setting that had its own complexities," says veteran producer Gus Howard (who produced 317 of the 510 Blue Heelers episodes). "I believe if you create a strong sense of almost documentary reality, you can then hit your audience with a solid dose of fiction."

The series was co-created by experienced writers Jimmy Thomson and Tony Morphett, who deliver scripts written in a hard, brittle style, the dialogue sparse and detached. They employ an elided, concentrated language that creates an atmosphere full of moral decay, malevolence and the threat of violence from farmers who have hit the wall.

"We wanted the show to be unsentimental and that is really hard to do," Howard says. "No matter how dry a script, it's a constant struggle to control the sentiment."

Consequently there are no naturalistic fillers, those "ums" and "ahs" of stodgy dialogue that are used to bulk out the narrative in too much Australian screenwriting. And there are no soap operatic flourishes used to communicate strong emotions, those tit-for-tat exchanges that always rise to a shout.

Unlike McLeod's Daughters, which moves in and out of a kind of idealised, feminised "Australianness", Rain Shadow is hard and lean, with only two main characters and no studio shooting or major construction.

The production was designed to exploit landscape, light, the weather and the weathered farming structures of the South Australian town of Callington and the Montarto South region. "We wrote the country in as a character and it's there on the screen now," Howard says. "Everything we looked at became useful photographically, the ugly became beautiful and we didn't have to hide things the way you normally do."

While the story moves slowly, a great deal happens, as in a Hans Heysen painting in which space is crowded and time no object.

Howard says he used a feature film crew for Rain Shadow, which was shot in seven weeks, and not the usual TV series pick-up unit. "It was fast but I got the emotional, physical and intellectual commitment a feature crew provides, as distinct from the TV industry's usual conformity, utilitarianism and desire to shoot scenes as simply as possible to get through the day."

Ward is controlled as the ageing vet, refusing to give way to the sentimental or to be crushed by fate. This is one strong woman, with a low boiling point; "a bitch on wheels" to the local cowboys, with whom no one wants to tangle.

But with her wry stoic grin, Ward discloses Kate's humanity and the way she comes to terms with exasperation.

She conserves her words as the dryland farmers hoard their water. Ward is so good here, it's hard to imagine anyone else playing Kate McDonald. "We decided early in the piece that Kate was a Rachel Ward type, before we even started writing," Howard says. Thane is well cast too, her Jill Blake just the right balance of brisk rationalist and thoughtful idealist.

Rain Shadow may well prove to be one of those shows of which actors say, "That was the best thing I ever did."

Rain Shadow, Sunday, 8.30pm, ABC

By Graeme Blundell
October 06, 2007
The Australian