There are certainly a lot of missing people in movies and tv shows right now – although the same can be said of bank robberies and murders. In Australian productions, this all seems to happen on the water: the mysterious town of Savage River, the surf-themed Barons, the detective series Troppo and now Significant Others, created by Tommy Murphy and directed by Tony Krawitz. This compelling, intelligently crafted six-part series uses a missing persons case to surface the sunken tensions between family members, who are forced to reconnect when one of them disappears.
The family dynamics here reminded me of Hannie Rayson’s play Hotel Sorrento (made into a Richard Franklin feature), in which the publication of a novel that takes over a family’s private life casts a long, gloomy shadow over some already fraught relationships. Here the relationship test event is an inheritance claim from Sarah (Jacqueline McKenzie) who successfully gave her the family home. But now she’s gone, presumably drowning during a morning swim. Her disappearance forces the reunion of her estranged siblings Ursula (Rachael Blake), Den (Kenneth Moraleda), and Claire (Alison Bell), while her teenage children, Hanna (Zoë Steiner) and Ciaran (Gulliver McGrath), mourn.
The show begins with Hanna cycling to the beach, where she sees her mother waving far into the water – possibly for help. Hanna swims out to save her, but suddenly becomes the person being rescued, by a woman (Diana Popovska) on a surfboard. The scene is cleverly ambiguous: we can’t get a good look at Sarah and aren’t sure how Hanna lost control. It’s an early reminder from Krawitz about the power of not showing certain things, or almost show them.
It may sound a bit corny to say that the characters are lost at sea – both metaphorically and literally – or that there are oceans between them. But such analogies are tempting given the frequency with which this drama returns to the water. Krawitz and cinematographer Hugh Miller (whose work includes Sherpa, June Again, and 2040) bathe the frame in blue. In the first episode, the color shows up everywhere, including on Ursula’s blazer and skirt, Den’s parachute jacket, Claire’s shirt and jeans, and on police uniforms. And if the characters don’t wear blues, they sure are feeling them, with a lot of pain in the heart and soul-searching, though the show never feels exhaustingly bleak.
When it comes to directing top performances in moody dramas, Krawitz has form, his body of work including episodes of The Kettering Incident and the excellent Christos Tsiolkas adaptation Dead Europe. Here, his cast impresses across the board, from Blake as the eldest matriarchal sister, to Bell as the youngest, Claire, who is prone to getting distracted by booze, sex and the like; it’s the kind of role often presented in the oversimplified mode of a carefree, selfish free spirit, but carefully modulated by Bell. Moraleda adds soulful gravitas as their adopted brother, while McGrath’s good-sounding performance as an excitable, fussy teenager is the kind that’s easily overlooked because we’ve seen it many times before (in real life and on screen) .
Sarah appears throughout the show in gracefully executed glimpses that resemble memory coils more than traditional flashbacks. In the first episode (this review includes all six), Claire sees a photo of her sister stuck to a mirror, causing her mind to wander. Krawitz cuts down to flower-adorned sheets that roll like waves, before revealing that Sarah is making the bed. In the second episode, flashes of her are incorporated into a scene where Den – a contemporary dancer – rehearses a performance and communicates that unrelated issues between the two siblings are haunting him.
Krawitz expresses all this without highlighting it, trusting the viewer to grasp the meaning without forcing the point, while leaving plenty of wiggle room for multiple interpretations. The show’s final reveals and moments of catharsis are a bit neat, closing things decisively, but this is a class act from start to finish.