Abuse victim’s stoic narration adds heft to Monster of Mangatiti.

Sunday night marked the last instalment of TV One's Sunday Theatre, the latest season of which transformed true local crime stories into gripping telefeatures.

We've had people abandoned at sea, murderous husbands and mystery detective attacks, but it was the final story told, The Monster of Mangatiti, that demonstrated - however outmoded it might be in this time-shifting serialised age - just how powerful and fearless the telefeature can be.

The docu-drama followed the story of 19-year-old Heather Walsh, who was kept captive on a remote farm after accepting a job on the property in 1985.

Held both a mental and physical prisoner by farmer William Cornelius, Heather was kept against her will and sexually assaulted repeatedly. Needless to say it was a harrowing watch, totally unforgiving in its approach to the perpetrator and unflinching in tackling such trauma.


The most powerful element of The Monster of Mangatiti was the decision to weave the story into a docu-drama. Rather than making a straight documentary packed with re-enactments, or a fictionalised film that allows the audience distance from the uncomfortable subject matter, the film slipped between both genres. Sequences of drama are narrated by Heather herself and, often when the ordeal becomes too tough to watch, she returns on screen as a talking head, stoic against a plain black background.

Having Walsh appear throughout the film is a testament to the strength, bravery and resilience of the survivors of these crimes, and a sound reminder that these horrific events do actually happen to real people.

It's not just a movie anymore, it's peppered with an inescapable reality that gives the story so much more gravity. Having her tell her own story, in her own words, is a powerful and affecting technique, particularly for a subject matter that is so often tip-toed around. You can never wander too far from the truth, because Heather is there, our sturdy anchor in the story.

With that said, the fictionalised sequences help to show us the climate of the crime, as the incredible performances portray the level of manipulation involved and convey her fear as a young farmhand.

The actors involved must be credited for staying far away from the overblown recreations seen in true-life crime shows, instead keeping things at a simmering tension that boils over only in controlled bursts.

Greta Gregory as Heather Walsh plays the wide-eyed 19-year-old with a gut-wrenching optimism, the light of which palpably dims more and more as the story progresses.

Mark Mitchinson manages to slowly manifest the evil in William Cornelius, peeling back layers of normalcy as he becomes more and more unhinged. A minimal supporting cast, including the national mum Alison Quigan, keep the story focused on their dynamic and the grotesque abuse of power therein.

The Monster of Mangatiti proves that you can still work within the docu-drama genre to give the story the respect it deserves, and create devastatingly stunning imagery. I'm not the first person to say that Monster was peppered with shades of Vincent Ward's Vigil and Jane Campion's Top of the Lake.

The landscape is captured as a looming threat, overwhelming in its expanse, as it is so often portrayed in New Zealand film and television. Sweeping shots of towering forested hills, jagged rocky outcrops and darkened caves paint a portrait of a kind of oppressive paradise.

The recreated story is wrapped up with real news clips from the hearing, and footage of Cornelius in court. He stands withered and bewildered, an old man who has long forgotten his heinous crimes. All the while, Walsh stares down the camera, a brave survivor who has shared her journey that has not only spanned decades, but one that will see no resolution.

The final Sunday Theatre documented her journey from captive to advocate, creating affecting, important television that contributes to a far wider conversation outside of itself.