The Shark Net: articles

The one that got away

THERE'S an astonishing sequence at the end of the final episode of The Shark Net, the ABC's three-part adaptation of Robert Drewe's memoir of growing up in Perth in the shadow of Eric Cooke's reign of terror.

It begins with our young hero on a train with his wife and son heading across the Nullarbor toward Melbourne, where the fledgling reporter and future novelist intends embarking on a fresh beginning.

We cut to Cooke in prison awaiting execution, with Drewe telling us a sorry tale about the killer's mentally retarded eldest son Michael who had wandered off during an excursion to the Swan River and drowned. "From that day on Eric welcomed his fate," he narrates.

Memory and desire then blur in the blazing sun as the condemned man imagines himself playing with the boy on the river's edge—first overcome with joy when Michael manages to say the word starfish, then shocked when the child starts screaming uncontrollably.

A distressed Cooke sweeps Michael into his arms and, to spare the feelings of the snooty middle-class bathers, rushes the boy into the water—plunging the child below the surface, releasing him and allowing the tide to determine their fates.

Back on the train Drewe is also playing with his son but this time there is the opposite movement, with this child rushing down the corridor into his father's arms. "Perhaps that is why we have children—to erase the anger and the guilt of our inheritance," reflects Drewe.

The juxtaposition of these two very different histories and destinies and the stunningly lyrical manner in which they have been photographed, edited and scored makes for the most jolting moment in the series.

It is at this point that The Shark Net's central idea of uncannily interconnected lives really gets its hooks into us—not simply as a clever storytelling device or eye-catching editing flourish but something truly moving and profound.

If the rest of this otherwise handsomely mounted series had achieved this same degree of poetry and psychological insight then The Shark Net might have really become the Western Australian coming-of-age classic it so clearly aspires to be.

Instead it is not much more than another slice of quality ABC television, with its polished surface, its marvellous performances and the loving attention to period detail that has thrilled older audiences who lived through this disturbingly contradictory period of local history.

The main problem is that the acclaimed screenwriter Ian David (best known for the landmark crime series Blue Murder) has stuck so closely to Drewe's book, which is understandable considering its status among Australian readers and the fact it is a work of non-fiction.

Rather than allowing the story to take on a life of its own in dramatic terms the series is too heavily rooted in the mode of literary memoir, with many of what should have been sexy, wrenching and troubling scenes played out in a rather flat second-hand manner.

One of the main casualties of this failure to satisfactorily re-imagine Drewe's book as a piece of television drama is that the sense of fear that gripped the city during the years of Cooke's killing spree doesn't register in the way we might have hoped.

In fact, none of Cooke's killings, which are filmed by director Graham Burfoot in a disappointingly functional style, achieves the level of terror and suspense that takes the audience into the minds of those who lived through the period.

The series' determination to give us an illustrated version of the book instead of using the language of television to give us drama and psychological insight is most vividly demonstrated in the disappointing would-be climax in which Cooke is finally captured.

Cooke was caught when The West Australian's crime reporter and Drewe's mentor Ralph Wheatley (played by Warren Mitchell) helped the police set a trap by not mentioning that the gun used in his latest killing had been found on the Mt Pleasant foreshore.

Rather than playing this out in best crime yarn mode—after all, this was the era when tabloid journalism was at its peak—Burfoot shoots and edits in best BBC quality drama series mode, with not a scrap of tension or excitement and, again, dulled by the narration.

Not that The Shark Net is without its qualities. David has taken Drewe's central notion of seeing his own story not simply intertwined with Cooke's but a terrible living, breathing metaphor for his own crippling guilt and really twisted it hard.

"I was a criminal of romance," says Drewe in a memorable sequence in which his creeping around his own house is matched by Cooke on his nightly prowl. "Love makes us all the deceivers."

While these juxtapositions make their point at an intellectual level they never quite smack us in the guts the way a bolder, more imaginative adaptation of Robert Drewe's celebrated book might have.

By Mark Naglazas
August 26, 2003
The West Australian