The Silence: articles

Roxburgh and McConnell

Richard Roxburgh and Alice McConnell in The Silence

Good cop, mad cop

An Aussie crime thriller about a detective who freezes on the job may revive ABC drama's reputation, Sacha Molitorisz reports.

When Scott Meek became head of drama at the ABC 18 months ago he inherited several dramas, one of them nearly as old as Beowulf. It goes like this: unless changes are made, the ABC may soon not be making any dramas. "The ABC is fantastically strapped for cash and the making of drama is very, very expensive," says the affable Scotsman. "For drama at the ABC, we live in very difficult times indeed. The great fear is that if there isn't a fairly radical solution, there may come a time when it's very difficult to make drama at all."

Fortunately, Meek also inherited The Silence. Starring Richard Roxburgh, directed by Cate Shortland (MDA, Somersault, The Secret Life of Us) and produced by Jan Chapman (Lantana, Somersault, The Piano), it's an impressive two-part thriller that might help resuscitate the ABC's reputation as a producer of quality television.

"My only ambition is to try and make good things for the ABC's audience," Meek says. "The Silence was in development before I arrived, which I consider a blessing.

If you inherit a project like this, and if you think that at some point in the future you might be able to claim credit for it, well, why wouldn't you be pleased?"

Heavily influenced by film noir, The Silence stars Roxburgh as Richard Treloar, a cop who freezes on the job. Taken off the streets, Treloar is reassigned to a desk job at the Police and Justice Museum, where he becomes fascinated by a series of crime photos, including a 1964 snap of a female corpse. Despite the efforts of a counsellor, Treloar retreats into himself, alienating his girlfriend while becoming obsessed by the enigmatic image.

Written by Alice Addison (Remote Area Nurse) and Mary Walsh (whose CV includes a stint at the Police and Justice Museum), it's shot in seedy milieus including the Wentworth Park greyhound races, the Pyrmont wharves, Woolloomooloo and Darlinghurst. The result is edgy, dark and clever.

"I thought it was a great conceit for a story," Roxburgh says. "Very intriguing."

On a cold, overcast day in June last year, the cast and crew of The Silence assembled at a dilapidated former tile factory in Auburn. On the call sheet was a scene set in the office of Juliet, the psychologist played by Essie Davis, previously seen in the Aussie drama After the Deluge.

Roxburgh: "G'day."

Davis: "You're late."

Roxburgh: "Traffic."

In the elliptic, subtle script, the angsty Treloar is a wounded man of few words. Hence the taut, minimal dialogue. As this scene was being shot, it was chilly outside; on set, the dialogue ensured it was even colder.

When lunch was called, Roxburgh slipped back into a tattered dressing gown with a star and the initials RG sewn on the back.

"I think it belonged to Rebecca Gibney," Roxburgh says. "From one of those two-part TV shows."

A recycled bathrobe? Clearly, The Silence wasn't being shot on a bloated Hollywood budget. "Mindful of the ABC budget, I planned to take the train out here, like a good Scotsman," Meek says during a break in filming. "So I got to the station with my $4.40 - but then the train was 47 minutes late."

If money was tight, Roxburgh didn't mind. He prefers small productions, believing they often have an energy and integrity large productions lack. "It seems every extra dollar added means another thing you have to bend over for in the end," he says.

Roxburgh has forged a formidable reputation on stage and screen by playing Hamlet, Percy Grainger and Sherlock Holmes, among others. The highpoint came in the 1995 ABC drama Blue Murder, in which Roxburgh was terrifying as another loose cannon of a cop, Roger Rogerson.

"The Silence is such a relief to do," says Roxburgh, who appears in nearly every scene. "It's something that's really smart and has lots of emotional complexity and lots and lots of layers. It's the most dense thing I've ever read in my life. There are so many secrets and clues and hints and things to work through."

Part of the fun is collaborating with the team behind the award-winning Somersault, including Shortland, Chapman, co-producer Anthony Anderson and cinematographer Robert Humphreys. Like Somersault, The Silence has hand-held camera work and gritty, beautiful visuals.

"It doesn't have the slightly annoying, seasick-making quality of the pretentious hand-held style," Roxburgh says. "But it does have an immediate energy and that feeds into this story."

Roxburgh, who married Italian actress Silvia Colloca in 2004, is learning more about directing. Last year, while filming The Silence, he directed Ray's Tempest for the Belvoir Street Theatre. Next month, filming begins on his debut feature as director, the drama Romulus, My Father, starring Eric Bana.

"It's interesting how your attitude to directing changes once you've directed," he says. "I find I don't spend a whole lot of time faffing in the caravan any more. Now I'm a bit more acquainted with the feeling a director has of being completely under siege."

On set, Shortland seems calm and approachable - anything but under siege. "Cate is quite extraordinary," Chapman says. "And she's very sensitive and intuitive and goes to a lot of trouble to understand the characters and the stories and to build up the whole language of the film. And when you work with Cate she thinks so intently about everything that you end up watching a whole lot of movies and getting a whole lot of references. We looked at everything from The Pledge to Se7en to Klute to all kinds of different noir thrillers."

Chapman's television credits include Sweet and Sour and Come in Spinner, but it has been about a decade since she produced for television. "For The Silence, I found myself back in the very same Gore Hill offices that was the very last place I'd worked at the ABC, which is very bizarre. They were new then, they'd just been built, but now of course there's nothing else there."

It's hard not to take that as symbolic of an ABC that's been repeatedly downsized and rationalised. Chapman laments the changes. "I remember I met Jane Campion when she came into the ABC one day to look at stuff being done there," she says, alluding to the partnership that yielded The Piano. "It was a real culture of what was important and good stuff. That's what I'd like to see happening again. Back when I left the ABC, they were making 100 hours of drama."

Chapman says it is difficult everywhere. Securing money now from any Australian network is tough. "I think it's time for people to move politically to try and encourage more assistance for TV. Also, I think an 'ABC Independent' would be a really good idea, like SBS Independent."

Meek adds: "With Australian drama it's really, really difficult but I think it's terribly, terribly important. I do not know what cultures are if they do not have their own stories. It is the defining notion of human culture, we construct narratives of our lives to give our societies meaning. If you don't have your own stories, you're living in an impoverished society."

If you want an even more eloquent argument in favour of Australian drama, watch The Silence.

The Silence screens on the ABC over the next two Sundays at 8.30pm.

March 29, 2006
Sydney Morning Herald