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In the Winter Dark (1998)


In an isolated Australian valley, something or someone is killing native animals and livestock in the night. Maurice Stubbs (Ray Barrett), an aging farmer, finds a dead kangaroo with its throat torn out. He believes it’s been killed by a large cat; his wife Ida (Brenda Blethyn) isn’t so sure. There are only two other houses in the valley. Murray Jacob (Richard Roxburgh), a refugee from the city, lives in the big house once owned by a woman who had many cats. Two inner-city dropouts live in the other place, a falling-down shack, until the man leaves after a loud argument. Ronnie (Miranda Otto) then takes some hallucinogenic drugs and falls asleep in the long grass. Jacob finds her the next day and brings her to his home. While she sleeps, he realises she’s pregnant.

As more animals turn up dead, Maurice enlists Murray to his cause: they must hunt the big cat down and kill it. Ida, who has never recovered from the cot death of her second child 20 years earlier, befriends the brittle and unhappy Ronnie. They get drunk together as the men blunder around the valley at night with loaded guns. Ronnie begins staying over at Murray’s house; they are both afraid of what’s out there. Maurice refuses to call in professional help: he knows what has to be done. Ida’s anger at her husband boils over in an argument at Murray’s house. She rushes out into a cold, wet night just as Ronnie’s baby starts to come. With only one working car between them, Maurice begins a frantic search for his wife, driving too fast. He rolls the car, injuring Ronnie. In a panic, dazed and angry, Maurice fires at something moving in the trees, killing his own wife. One year later, alone in the valley, Maurice sits on his porch, contemplating his crime.

Curator’s notes

Director James Bogle and producer Rosemary Blight spent five years trying to get money for this adaptation of Tim Winton’s 1998 novel. The material was considered too dark by many of the funding agencies, but that is the film’s distinguishing trait. James Bogle grew up in rural Australia and he invests the film with a strong sense of the creeping loneliness of rural life. All four of these characters are alone. Murray has lost his wife, Ronnie has been deserted. Maurice and Ida have never been able to talk about the biggest tragedy in their lives – the loss of their child by cot death. Maurice turns his rage onto animals. There’s a disturbing scene in one of the flashbacks when he kills a cat that he gave his daughter. He says in the spare voice-over narration that it felt good to see another creature suffer after the death of his own child. This cruel side of Maurice might explain the mutilations going on in the valley but we’re never told. The fear becomes much more effective when we don’t know what to be afraid of.

The film is effectively creepy, with a sense of damp, Gothic horror. There have been genre films that explored this kind of rural paranoia, but not so many that take the loneliness of the bush seriously, as a cause of real mental trauma. Ray Barrett’s performance is one of his best, in a long and distinguished career (see also Goodbye Paradise, 1981). Maurice is a brooding shell of a man who has lost all the kindness he once had, except when he looks at his wife. Ida appears to despise him, when she allows herself to feel any emotion for him. As the younger two begin to find each other, the older couple falls apart, driving each other mad with their inability to talk about their grief.

In the Winter Dark was the opening night film at the 1998 Sydney Film Festival.