Underbelly: articles

Suburban mayhem

Nine's big new drama, Underbelly, is a crim Kath & Kim - a tragedy about aspirational Aussies. Melinda Houston reports.

Underbelly, the big new Australian drama, is being lauded - quite rightly - for its true crime cred. What Phoenix and Janus did for Australian police (and which, sadly, has never been replicated), Underbelly does for the Australian criminal classes: makes them real, gritty, believable - and unmistakably local. And what's really entertaining is that what emerges in the process is a compelling picture of the dark side of the Aussie aspirational. What we end up with is The Castle goes gangster.

Like The Sopranos before it, Underbelly is very alive to the fact that in gangster-world more than almost any other, art and life continually feed off each other. It was Brando and Pacino who introduced the "kiss of death" to the real-life Mafia lexicon; the actual New Jersey made guys started adopting polo shirts and chinos after seeing how well they became Tony Soprano and the boys. And the Morans and Mokbels see themselves as playing gangsters even while they are - literally - deadly serious. As Mrs Gangitano says to her soon-to-be-deceased husband: "You're living in a movie inside your head."

They want to be the movie stars: Pacino, Liotta, Gandolfini. They want to be, but they're not. Australian gangsters have had their moments but they just don't have the history, the scope, the lore of their US-Italian colleagues. So this is The Sopranos Australian-style. Small scale. Suburban. What you might call disorganised crime.

It's shot exclusively on location, but that isn't what gives Underbelly its unique flavour. Of course we recognise the streets, the trams, various shopfronts and cafes. But you got more of a feeling of local colour from Kick (the SBS multicultural soap) than you do from this: high production values somehow leach the ordinariness from neighbourhood landmarks.

It's the less specific locations that seem more real, and set the mood so perfectly: the Gangitanos' Templestowe mansion with the rusting Toys-R-Us swing set in the backyard; Carl Williams' humble Broadmeadows brick veneer; Jason Moran's ugly leather sofa (which no doubt cost a packet); the cheap St Kilda flat with fairy lights strung across the micro-venetians to create a party mood.

The crimes themselves seem to revolve around pitifully small amounts of money. We're not talking million-dollar deals. This is five grand here, 30 grand there. Anyone following the real-life police corruption trials would have been amazed to discover just how cheap it is to buy a senior detective of your very own. Even the name - The Carlton Crew - sounds like something your mates called themselves in high school.

Indeed, if Underbelly has a flaw, it's that it creates this world almost too well. It's difficult when the characters are larger than life, when they spend their lives playing themselves, as it were, to make them convincing. All the gangster motifs are well and truly worked and initially it feels clumsy and obvious.

Likewise with the police. If you've ever heard a senior constable giving a press conference you know they deal in almost nothing but cliches. So when a detective says, "With your help we can put this guy away for a long time," you can't help but flinch. Yet it's probably precisely what he said. The bimbos seem horribly fake - as gratingly fake as when you overhear the real thing in the street or in a bar. You know that dumb blondes really are this annoying in real life, but it hurts to see them on screen. You want to look away.

Gradually, though, you do get the sense that these guys are living their lives as if they're in a badly written gangster movie. And there are plenty of occasions when the dumb-ass suburban vibe really works. ("Know who said that?" Alphonse Gangitano asks at one point. "John F. Kennedy." His interlocutor shrugs helplessly. "Never met him.")

And the series benefits hugely from a superb cast. Vince Colosimo does a great gangster, and chances are that he, like most of us in the northern suburbs, would have crossed paths with the real deal at some time or other. Cuddly Kevin Harrington - demonstrating his underestimated dramatic chops - manages to appear both clownish and evil as Lewis Moran. Les Hill's Jason Moran is also fantastic: presenting as cool, understated, ordinary, then slowly emerging as more and more intense, more and more unhinged. And Gyton Grantley as baby-faced Carl Williams perfectly captures the manner of a dangerous simpleton.

For those familiar with the real-life characters there is often a strong physical resemblance. But what matters most is that all these guys (and director Tony Tilse) absolutely understand that they're not playing the kind of gangsters we're used to: the US kind. They're playing Aussie suburban boys gone bad.

When this is really smoking, as it starts to do by the second episode, Underbelly does comprehend the classically tragic nature of crime gangs - the fact that their demise is written into their fate from the moment of their birth - as The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas all did. But it's a distinctly Australian tragedy.

Like all those owners of McMansions with a kitchen full of Miele appliances and two SUVs in the driveway, in those great swathes of Melbourne where - to borrow Peter Temple's delicious phrase - you can feel the pressure of the mortgages on your skin, Underbelly is above all the story of a group of people who just want to be that little bit better than they are, and fatally overcommit themselves in the process.

Underbelly, Wednesday 8.30pm, Channel Nine.

By Melinda Houston
February 10, 2008
The Age