Christos Tsiolkas’s award-winning novel The Slap brought the Melbourne writer international success and was adapted into a compelling eight-part TV series by Matchbox Pictures, with some skilful scriptwriting and direction reinforcing his pitiless dissection of suburban Australian living. Now the same production company has brought his next novel, Barracuda — the story of a working-class boy who attends a privileged private school on a swimming scholarship — to the screen for the ABC, and what a classy piece of work it is.
The novel was praised on publication not only for the author’s thinking about class and nation, sport and sex but for the way, as literary critic Julieanne Lamond said in the Sydney Review of Books, “it focuses on … concrete daily ethics of care and respect”. It’s a complex story and given a careful, considered and obviously respectful treatment by producers Tony Ayres and Amanda Higgs, writers Blake Ayshford and Belinda Chayko, and director Robert Connolly.
It’s Melbourne in 1996, a city — like the rest of the country — more than a little obsessed by the 22-year-old Kieren Perkins when he wins the 1500m freestyle at that year’s Atlanta Olympics. Like Perkins, 16-year-old Danny Kelly (Elias Anton) only wants to win gold, his life a preparation for success, with his successful courting by the exclusive boys school Blackstone College bringing him one step closer.
But Danny at first struggles to make his mark, intimidated by the school’s grand buildings, its walls and fancy uniforms, the way the boys are called curtly by their surnames. The only place he feels certain of who he is in the school’s state-of-the-art pool.
The school swim team initially torments and ridicules him and his attractive, sensual mother (Victoria Haralabidou), his most passionate supporter, who never quite fits in with the other mothers no matter how hard she tries to be their friend. The other swimmers — Wilco (Andrew Creer), Scooter (Rhys Mitchell), Tsitsas (Joe Klocek) and the good-looking team leader Martin Taylor (Benjamin Kindon) — refuse to integrate him in the classroom or in the pool; their taunting is relentless.
But, grudgingly, they are forced to accept him as his prowess in the water earns him the nickname Barracuda, after the ferocious, opportunistic predator that relies on surprise and short bursts of speed, and he is drawn into their wealthy social world, a treacherous place full of expectation and pretence.
What I like about the establishing first episode is the way it maintains an aura of honest, unforced mystery: will this young man make it and what will happen to the people around him along the way? Will his anger destroy his life? And, in the end, what is success and what is failure?
Indeed, everyone involved with these young men seems to be floundering around, not knowing what to do with them and their problematic and disoriented masculinity except encourage an obsession with winning. Then, of course, there is the developing class tension.
There are so many questions as the story is set in place in the rather slow-moving but emotionally fascinating first episode. Several themes are established but these people are emotionally constricted and can no more analyse their feelings than verbalise them.
Adaptations can be tricky things. “The printed page can work as a kaleidoscope because the reader takes the shuffling and reshuffling images at his own pace, making his quietus whenever he may choose; but a screen-sized kaleidoscope shimmying around relentlessly for several hours would leave audiences dizzy and confused — if it did not make them leave, period,” the critic John Simon wrote in reviewing Milos Forman’s adaptation of the EL Doctorow novel Ragtime. And it’s true of TV too: we make early decisions about whether we will hang in with stories that are too dizzying.
While I haven’t read the book, I’m told that Tsiolkas inventively splits his narrative, alternating between first and third-person narration and plays with time moving backwards and forwards, but Ayshford and Chayko, so far at least, have not gone down that storytelling pathway.
Connolly and his collaborators quietly move the first episode through small, well-paced incidents that impress themselves on you instantly: Danny’s knockabout dad’s strange fear of his boy’s talent, the moments of cruel racism and bigotry, Danny’s mother almost erotically shaving her son’s body hair before an event, the moments when Danny’s eyes hold on his handsome team captain’s just a moment too long.
It moves purposefully towards a definite conclusion — the journey has meaning and no stage of it is merely accidental — enhanced by the fluid camera skills of cinematographer Stefan Duscio and the fine score of Bryony Marks tracing the waxing and waning of tensions.
The acting is exemplary: Matt Nable is one of our unsung and most versatile talents, especially good as coach Torma, his Hungarian accent not only convincing but beguiling when he reads Walt Whitman to his charges. Creer, Mitchell and Klocek convince too as sterling competitive swimmers as well as complex rich kids, and Anton, making his TV debut in the title role, winning the part while in Year 11, is simply tremendous. This should be the start of a long career as a leading actor.
Barracuda. Sunday. July 10th. 8.40pm