Critical Condition: Devil’s Playground

Fringe’s John Noble stars in TV1’s premiere of Devil’s Playground (9.35 Sunday), “a brooding mystery that begins with the disappearance of a teenage boy, expands quickly into an explosive personal and political thriller orbiting around the Catholic Church in Australia in the late 1980s. It is a sequel to Fred Schepisi’s film of the same name, and Simon Burke reprises his character Tom Allen, then a teenage boy in a seminary, now a psychiatrist. He becomes the chief investigator in the mystery, and soon key to the first revelations of clergy abuse of children. The cast is extraordinary. The writing is exemplary. The production quality world class.”

“If you’ve struggled to understand how it was that chaplains or parish priests who abused boys for decades were not stopped or why the church covered it up or why the victims took two decades to disclose the offences, a searing new television drama Devil’s Playground will bring you closer to an understanding. Arguably Foxtel’s most challenging Australian drama series to date, Devil’s Playground is both a sequel to Fred Schepisi’s 1976 acclaimed feature film The Devil’s Playground and an original work.”

“The opening double episode of The Devil’s Playground shares qualities that will attract fans of Broadchurch. Mystery, grief, suspicion in a tight community. There are less stylistic bells and whistles. This is conventional solid filmmaking. But the decision to respect old-school storytelling over newfangled HBO tricks, pays off in the long term. This is a complex layered piece of work that builds in suspense and gravity. This series is important for a broader audience, but every Catholic has skin in this game. We’ve known the champions, the cowards, the politicians and, hopefully, not the perpetrators in these situations. The Devil’s Playground presents them all, with the perplexing dramatic challenge, as we watch, to identify each man correctly.”

“Devil’s Playground is unlikely to please Catholic devotees, given its themes of clergy abuse -only hinted at in the premiere- are set to unravel as narrative television drama. At the hands of writer Blake Ashford and director Rachel Ward, it is clear this project is set to expose all kinds of sinister corruption and pit them against questions of morality, faith and due diligence. Special mention must go to cinematographer Andrew Commis for replicating the colour palette of Schepisi’s film, drained here of bright hues. Quite why a 1976 coming-of-age film has opted for a mystery / thriller isn’t entirely clear, in what is ultimately a major genre shift.The sum of the parts is the tapestry here, ensuring Devil’s Playground is a powerful and engrossing chapter in the tale of Tom Allen.”

“Where the series falls apart is by building too much of a personal stake in the story for Tom Allen. It would have been perfectly sound dramatically for him to simply be drawn back into the world of the church with his new job and to explore the ramifications that has on him personally and spiritually. Instead the series also has him knowing the boy who goes missing well, being the son of a neighbour he had an affair with. It’s just too contrived for it to sit right. After all, what are the odds of him being called back to the church just as this boy goes missing? It overloads the conceit of the series too much.”

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