Rebecca Barry Hill: Kiwis kill it in new drama

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New Australian drama Wentworth stars Kiwi actress Danielle Cormack as Bea Smith.
New Australian drama Wentworth stars Kiwi actress Danielle Cormack as Bea Smith.

The Aussies have produced some bloody good drama lately, including the eight-part series Puberty Blues (TV One). Last Sunday's finale ended on the perfect note, with Debbie and Sue defying their former idols, the Greenhills gang, and leaping on to surfboards in front of them; Gary's descent into the inevitability of smack addiction leaving the door open for the second series.

It was quintessentially Australian - as is the new drama, Wentworth (Mondays, 9.30pm, TV2), with one exception: the lead is a Kiwi.

Danielle Cormack is no stranger to Aussie crime dramas. She played Kate Leigh in Underbelly Razor and barrister Scarlet Meagher in legal drama Rake (screening here on the Rialto channel). In Wentworth she excels, creating a whole new character from the iconic role of Bea Smith, the protagonist in 1980s drama Prisoner.

The show is a modern "reimagining" of the original, which was a long-running melodrama with a cult following across the ditch.

This version is a prequel that explains how Bea got behind bars and eventually became the "top dog" of the inmates in Cell Block H.

Watching Cormack is pretty satisfying, it has to be said, even if the Aussies know a thing or two about convicts. The actress has said her aim wasn't to emulate Val Lehman's version of Bea but to create her own character. And she has, playing a woman who's vulnerable yet steely, scared but strong.

A lot happened in the first episode. Bea learned that life at Wentworth Correctional Facility isn't roses. There are a few friendly faces, and a woman with a kid. But there's also Franky, who tested Bea's allegiance by asking her to traffic drugs; and the prison wardens (including fellow Kiwi Robbie Magasiva), themselves prisoners in a way, whose relationships with the inmates are a little more intimate than you might expect. We also discovered Bea's husband beat her repeatedly until she decided she'd had enough and tried to kill him.

That said, parts of Wentworth feel a little underpopulated. Although we see most of the action in Bea's H Block, the courtyard and cafeteria scenes feel a bit barren, whereas I'd imagine in reality prisons are bursting at the seams. When the prisoners are in isolation, a few moments of silence are understandable; in relatively busy scenes featuring several prisoners they can hold conversations no problem.

But for the most part, the Foxtel production feels both gritty and smooth, the result of sophisticated direction from Killing Time director Kevin Carlin, stylish cinematography (in the opening sequence Bea watched young people enjoying themselves on the street through the bars of the prison van), a racy plot and solid acting.

Cliched bad girls would make this show unwatchable - they'd be sneering, unfeminine, the female take on Hannibal Lecter. Franky's nemesis, the older, greyer Jacs (Kris McQuade) veers a little close to this but wields most of her power through the way she speaks.

And yes, by nature Wentworth is melodramatic. But those moments of high drama (Bea falling on a prison guard's bloodied body during a violent riot) felt quite credible in the hands of these Aussies - and Kiwis.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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