Seven Types of Ambiguity review – Hugo Weaving conjures dark magic amid a powerful cast

ABC TV’s adaptation of Elliot Perlman’s novel is full of electric performances, but turns down the heat on some of the story’s most thrilling elements

Author Elliot Perlman’s superb, heavy-duty, Rashomonian novel Seven Types of Ambiguity unpacks an emotionally charged mystery – a case involving a child, which may or may not be a kidnapping – from seven highly subjective perspectives. You could describe the characters Perlman explores in first person as unreliable narrators, though not in overtly duplicitous ways: there’s no equivalent of a Kevin Spacey shit-spinner referencing the devil and concealing the true identity of Keyser Söze.

The book is a tangled and puzzle-like he-said-she-said, with several hes and shes and a kaleidoscope of issues for the various tale-tellers to butt heads over. Perlman’s structure is simple: seven characters, seven chunky chapters. Thus seven types of ambiguity. In this context, ambiguity involves the preconceptions, biases and vagaries of the mind unique to each person. Like the book, ABC TV’s adaptation is divided into chapters told from the point of view of different key players.

But it’s a six-part series. Thus six voices. So by my count, missing one entire type of ambiguity. Why not make it a seven-parter? The chapter framed from the perspective of the smug, high-cultured, might-be-kidnapper Simon Heywood (Xavier Samuel) didn’t make the cut. His unusual behaviour and fondness for university sweetheart Anna (Leeanna Walsman) is the centre around which the mystery orbits.

The first episode, Joe, follows Anna’s husband, the titular alpha male investment broker (Alex Dimitriades). Stephen Rae and Jonathan Wilson’s score brings us into his world with a trembling sense of immediacy: a synthesiser and piano-suffused symphony of rising and falling sounds. A cold and steely-looking colour palette (though it warms in subsequent episodes) puts a frosty layer over the fine cinematography of sharp-eye Bonnie Elliott, who recently shot Spear and Teenage Kicks.

Alex Dimitriades
Alex Dimitriades plays Joe, an alpha male investment broker. Photograph: ABC TV

Joe and Anna discover themselves in the lead roles of a parent’s-worst-nightmare situation, though the young Sam (Harrison Molloy) is soon found safe and sound. How come Simon took him? Anna says they haven’t seen each other for years. The mystery is not whether he did it but his motivations. A whydunnit, if you like, with the series’ entire arc devoted to explaining it.

The book devilishly rewarded highly dubious behaviour, giving it real kick as a psychological thriller. The TV series turns the heat down, making it more explicitly about relationship breakdowns and limitations – particularly Anna and Joe’s marriage, which is put through the wringer. Those who recall what happens in the novel (it’s certainly hard to forget) will view the television series as a bit of toothless tiger, the screenwriters (Jacquelin Perske, Jonathan Gavin and Marieke Hardy) registering its most dark and interesting parts as no-fly zones.

Xavier Samuel as Simon Heywood
Rewriting the details: Xavier Samuel as Simon Heywood. Photograph: ABC TV

In a police station in the first episode, Joe fumbles about in front of a vending machine and asks Simon’s psychiatrist Alex (Hugo Weaving) for change. In the next episode, which is framed from Alex’s perspective, that scene unfolds differently, the psychiatrist spotting Simon banging on the machine then offering him money. It’s a nice touch, referencing the ambiguity in the title and making a point about ways people rewrite the details of their own lives. If faulty or embellished memory can colour how we perceive a prosaic event in a hallway, how might it affect complex issues of conscience?

And while we’re posing rhetorical questions: can any Australian actor inflict grief on himself – and us – so persuasively, and so apparently effortlessly, as Hugo Weaving? The dark magic of Weaving’s performance conjures a provocative balancing act, presenting a psychiatrist many of us would want counselling us from the shrink chair, while paradoxically making him feel like make a potentially uncomfortable or even dangerous presence.

Dimitriades and Walsman are a seismic match as husband and wife and the rest of the cast are uniformly strong: a choice ensemble for the series’ three directors Glendyn Ivin, Ana Kokkinos and Matthew Saville (taking two episodes apiece). Anthony Hayes plays a financial analyst whose mishap in a team-building exercise is the stuff of work-related nightmares, while Andrea Demetriades is highly affecting in a largely cliche-devoid portrayal of a sex worker.

The characters are a beleaguered bunch grappling with blue devils and searching for love, on the hunt for some kind of second chance – without knowing precisely what they’ve lost or what they’re looking for. By rarely matching one person’s outpouring of affection with the recipient’s acceptance of it, the screenwriters envision a kind of self-defeating romantic gunplay, the players either firing blanks or shooting themselves in the foot. Seven Types of Ambiguity (or is that six?) is a tame adaption of the book, but it retains some of its weight and substance.

Seven Types of Ambiguity airs on ABC TV from Thursday 13 April at 8.30pm


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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