Metro Magazine (issue 203): Twisted Sisters
Originally published in Metro Magazine (issue 203, 2020)
Invention and isolation in Foxtel's Lambs of God.
Unfolding in an almost otherworldly cloister seemingly forgotten by time, Lambs of God employs elements of the Gothic and the supernatural to tell a story about faith, fortitude and the fight to maintain one’s way of life in a changing world. With its masterful visuals, strong performances and riveting, refreshing storyline, this Australian miniseries is worthy of international veneration, writes Glenn Dunks.
From its opening moments, the four-part 2019 Foxtel miniseries Lambs of God feels different. With its dilapidated convent at the top of a steeply plunging cliff on an island, it presents an immediate juxtaposition – the sheer logistical scope of such a striking visual sitting alongside the delicate and quiet intimacy of its (initial) three-piece acting ensemble. Through this establishing image, Lambs of God immediately sets itself up as a chilly work of the Australian Gothic. When we first see the faces of the sisters of St Agnes at its core – Sister Iphigenia (Essie Davis), Sister Margarita (Ann Dowd) and Sister Carla (Jessica Barden) – their skin is windswept pink, the capillaries on their faces blushing with colour against the grey woollen caped smocks they wear. Here is another juxtaposition in a series made up of them.
The three sisters live at the apparently disused convent, subsisting on food they grow in their garden and making sacrifices to a divine statue of St Agnes that is overrun with vines and battered by coastal storms. They live by candlelight, eat with their hands and take turns telling stories as they knit, dye and loom; the time in which they live is vague, their contemporary lives easily misinterpreted as one plucked from centuries ago. The arrival of a priest, Father Ignatius (Sam Reid), however, has both the sisters and the audience rushing directly into the present day. He is there to scout the convent and oversee the Catholic Church’s mission of turning the land, with its enviable views of the wild ocean, into a luxury hotel and spa from which to reap millions of dollars – a handy resource while the Church is in the midst of a very public fight against charges of child molestation.
When Ignatius’ intention is revealed, the sisters take to unorthodox methods to ensure their lives are not disrupted, including very uncharacteristic acts recalling those of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990). Although the first episode is strictly a four-person affair, later episodes venture outwards towards the mainland, introducing viewers to Ignatius’ alcoholic sister, Frankie (Kate Mulvany); Church figurehead Bishop Malone (John Bell); another young priest, Father Bob (Damon Herriman); local police officer Barnaby (Daniel Henshall); and a mysterious heiress, Lady Rose Stanford (Sigrid Thornton).
If you think all this sounds somewhat lurid and brimming with more than a slight ounce of soap opera, then you would be right. Despite its colour scheme of grey, black and dark green and its occasionally quite heavy themes, Lambs of God is never dour. One of the small wonders of the series is that, despite its minor tonal shifts and relatively swiftly paced plot detours, it remains not just consistent, but also able to efficiently settle the audience into its world and keep us there.
With only four one-hour episodes to play with, it has to be – and it is very binge-worthy as a result. After Episode 1, ‘The Devil into Paradise’, I was amazed by how much ground the series had covered and by the surprises it had already deployed. I was even more astonished by how many unexpected directions it went on to take, with each subsequent episode offering something notably different from the last. It is a rare series in which every instalment deals with a unique set of themes, with its own particular tone, yet it never comes off like a patchwork of ideas lacking a core focus. Jumping around between themes of independence, sisterhood, and the evils of the patriarchy and the Church, Lambs of God is at times a thriller, a Gothic horror and even, on occasion, a little bit funny – if only for the sake of momentary levity.
Ultimately, the series is about tests of faith and devotion – something rarely explored in Australian entertainment. Mary Magdalene (Garth Davis, 2018) this is not. But the show isn’t impenetrable to those who identify as atheist or agnostic. In fact, it follows in something of a grand tradition of the best ‘religious’ works being those that examine the roles of faith, God and spirituality in individuals’ lives – and in humanity more broadly – with a delicate sense of curiosity and interrogation.
In that sense, and although they share little else in common, Lambs of God bears comparison with The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988) and the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer; like them, it asks big questions of the viewer, believer or otherwise. Lambs of God is not for those who are affronted, on the level of logic, by the concept that God is real and everything that this idea entails. But, for those who are interested in how a deity (and/or believing in one) may influence people’s interactions with the world, the series might offer something entertaining and stimulating.
Climbing peak TV
‘Peak TV’[i] is a term that is easily flung around. It is easy to feel cynical about the term, a somewhat-hyperbolic phrase that plays right into a cultural landscape that would rather remake, recycle or reboot something that is only a few years old than discover something older than when Friends premiered in 1994. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been struck by the eye-rolls at yet another breathless explanation of the brilliance of a ‘new’ series that I not only have no time to watch but also cannot justify the expenditure on. Yet it is impossible to deny that, while plenty of series have come and gone these past two decades, television has also been doing things that were truly unthinkable when, well, Friends premiered – series’ as diverse as Game of Thrones, Chernobyl and Twin Peaks: The Return are all commonplace today with a new one seemingly premiering each week, but would have been unfathomable to anybody who came of age when Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice or the original Twin Peaks stood out like sore thumbs amid the television landscape.
While those of us who keep an eye on locally produced content could easily rattle off dozens of incredible, world-class Australian series that similarly reach for dramatic, narrative and stylistic heights – in recent years, we’ve seen The Hunting, The Cry, The Heights and Blue Water Empire – it’s also a sad fact that international recognition has continued to elude them. In The Guardian’s 100-strong list of the so-called ‘best TV shows’ of the twenty-first century,[ii] for example, a grand total of zero titles originated from Australia (unless you count the local reproductions of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me out of Here! and Gogglebox). Even in the local press, our stunning, groundbreaking shows struggle for attention, with audiences and critics alike preferring to binge the latest ‘hyped’ show from overseas on Netflix or Stan.
This, I suppose, is what brought me to Lambs of God: it made me think of Australia’s own last era of ‘peak TV’. I’d posit it as being around the 1980s, when miniseries like 1981’s A Town Like Alice, 1983’s The Dismissal, 1984’s Bodyline, 1987’s Vietnam and The Harp in the South, and 1989’s Bangkok Hilton enthralled viewers who were starved of serious, even cinematic, treatments of stories for adults on the small screen. These programs tapped into the zeitgeist of the day in a way that arguably hasn’t been replicated other than, perhaps, when the Underbelly franchise made waves in the 2000s.
That historic chapter of Australian television feels like it ended with Brides of Christ, a 1991 six-part miniseries set in a 1960s Sydney convent school that made stars out of then-newcomers Naomi Watts and Kym Wilson (alongside a minor appearance by a young Russell Crowe) and featured Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker (coincidentally named after Sister Agnes). In many ways, Lambs of God is like the twisted sister of this extremely popular show – not just in terms of their shared religious themes, but also in their ability to balance thought-provoking ideas around female self-determination and faith-related struggles with a not-insignificant streak of accessibility. In Brides of Christ’s case, what made the series memorable was its handling of conflicts around romance and sexual awakening. For Lambs of God, it is the way the show wades in the shallower end of the genre pool, giving viewers splashes of macabre ghoulishness.
The rest of the world may not care to recognise Australian TV as being on par with whatever sparkly new Netflix title is being beamed into living rooms every week like clockwork, but Lambs of God makes for a strong contribution to whatever global small-screen renaissance may be happening. And what a ripper of a yarn it is.
Outside the convent(ion)
Part of what has placed Lambs of God above the fray is how distinctly Australian it feels. While its press materials state that the story is set in the fictitious island of Cailleach, off the coast of Ireland,[iii] the storyworld itself is vague about where the action is happening. British and Irish accents, although not especially thick ones, can be heard among the melange of generic accent work, which only adds to the ambiguous sense of place. Without a location explicitly spoken of, I actually inferred from topographic details that this world was supposed to be Tasmania (and, indeed, it was partly filmed there, as well as in Sydney, the Blue Mountains and the south coast of New South Wales[iv]).
In genre terms, the series sits perfectly alongside other recent Australian Gothic titles like 2016’s The Kettering Incident, about (maybe) UFOs and (definitely) missing girls in a Tasmanian logging town (and my favourite piece of Australian dramatic television in years, with its debt to Twin Peaks a significant help), and 2018’s much-ballyhooed[v]Picnic at Hanging Rock reboot. It even has a thematic link with the lauded, colonial-Tasmania-set feature The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, 2018), with both recounting the experiences of women forgotten about on the fringes of the world and fighting to ensure they are not swept aside.
Like the above titles, Lambs of God has a technical prowess that is just as impressive as whatever American product is sweeping the Emmys. Xanthe Heubel’s costumes strike a fine balance between visual impact and character specificity, best seen in the heavy, woven robes into which the sisters symbolically knit their personal journeys (particularly the vivid blue design that shines in the final episode) and the out-of-sorts elegance of the day clothes sported by one character upon their return to the mainland. Bryony Marks’ score has fits and flourishes amid its moody atmospherics, while the cinematography of Academy Award nominee Don McAlpine is suitably lush, making rich use of deep, earthy colours and scattering pops of brightness scattered throughout. I was especially taken by the production design of Chris Kennedy, who has gifted director Jeffrey Walker with nooks and crannies, cast-iron structures and vine-covered gardens within which to unfold the narrative.
Lambs of God is a beauty to look at – so it’s almost a shame that Dowd, the cast’s big name thanks to her roles in Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale and movies like Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018), eats the entire set whole. Dowd does manage to play her character in a way that pays off perfectly in the final episode, ‘Resurrection’, but it’s fair to say that she isn’t the subtlest of performers. For her part, Davis is reliably watchable, her grounded presence occasionally giving way to something more frantic and haunted that works well with the portrayals of Dowd, Reid and the younger Barden in varying ways. I was impressed by Mulvany, too; she is arresting as a character with a tough exterior struggling with the deceptions of the men in her life.
The place that Lambs of God ends at is not the place I had expected just a few hours earlier. And I have no doubt that many will struggle with it, as it is a big swing for the dramatic fences and may just be one step too far towards the fantastical in a show that has already thrown a few unexpected curve balls. But, on reflection, it is most definitely in keeping with the series’ moody atmosphere and its adoption of an aesthetic that I might call ‘low-key camp’. For me, the end result is something peaceful and clear-eyed as well as entertaining and technically proficient.
Like the lambs of the title – which actually make several spooky appearances that could elicit giggles or chills or both just as easily – I found myself shepherded to keep watching Lambs of God by its masterful juxtapositions and unexpected moments. It is one kick of a miniseries worthy of an audience looking to embrace the next gripping tale.
[i]See Willa Paskin, ‘What Does “Peak TV” Really Mean?’, Slate, 23 December 2015, <https://slate.com/culture/2015/12/what-does-peak-tv-really-mean.html>, accessed 31 October 2019. [ii]Kate Abbott et al., ‘The 100 Best TV Shows of the 21st Century’, The Guardian, 16 September 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/sep/16/100-best-tv-shows-of-the-21st-century>, accessed 31 October 2019. [iii]Fox Showcase, Lambs of God press kit, 2019, p. 8. [iv]ibid., p. 6. [v]See, for example, Luke Buckmaster, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock First Look – Full-throttle Reboot of an Australian Classic’, The Guardian, 14 February 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/feb/14/picnic-at-hanging-rock-first-look-full-throttle-reboot-of-an-australian-classic>, accessed 31 October 2019.