From the opening shots of the title sequence, it is difficult not to recall HBO’s landmark series The Sopranos. The music sounds very similar in tone and vocal quality to “Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3. These first few seconds placed the thought firmly in my head: “Will this be the Australian Sopranos?” Thankfully, the answer is that The Straits is in a league of its own.
Heavy artillery raids against the coastal surrounds of Far Northern Queensland as we are introduced to Noel Montebello (Aaron Fa’aoso), the eldest son of the Montebello family. Violence, blood and mystery surround The Straits from the get go. It soon becomes clear that Noel is in an exchange over drugs. Indeed the Montebello’s are not only heavily involved in narcotics, but guns and smuggling are the family business.
Harry Montebello (Brian Cox) soon descends from his throne and acts as a King Lear figure. He assembles his children (three sons and a daughter) to announce an intended redistribution of power. Instead of passing it down to the eldest son Noel, Harry leaves the succession line open, seeing the children scramble against each other. Torres Strait culture usually sees the eldest succeeding, and yet Harry has other ideas. Marou (Jim Bani) is much more complacent and kind, Gary (Firass Dirani) is the youngest and least focused, and Sissy (Suzannah Bayes-Morton) is the only daughter and newly encumbered bookkeeper.
All children are adopted, displaying an interesting dynamic that will imaginably be played out to further degree. Elements of traditional Torres Strait culture play into the family’s reality. Sissy is arranged to be married, and yet manages to dodge the bullet to become the family business bookkeeper.
Like Lear, Brian Cox plays Harry with command and dominance. However, Harry does have a better grip on reality and knows how to manipulate the situation to see his best return by using his children as pawns in a chest game.
Rena Owen plays matriarch Kitty with exuberant force and demands the screen whenever present. If Harry is like Lear, then Kitty must be like Lady Macbeth. Kitty holds much of the power in the family, and has allowed the entry into its nefarious criminal activities. When tradition is overlooked, Kitty becomes angry and encourages Marou to step up to the plate.
Aaron Fa’aoso (Noel) created the idea for the series, with Louis Nowra (mainly known for his plays) developing the idea. On the writing front, Nick Parsons wrote the first episode and co-wrote the second episode with Jaime Browne. The first two episodes are directed by Peter Andrikidis, who handles the complex and multi-layered exposition frighteningly well. Intrigue and mystery surround this family, and the viewer is taken on a ride that slowly but fascinatingly reveals more.
Playing out as a modern Shakespearian drama, The Straits marches to the beat of its own jungle drum. Located in a section of Australian land that is not often featured in television, Queensland shines its aqua blue glistening waters brightly. The body of water between Cape York and New Guinea geographically places The Straits in interesting terrain, allowing a Torres Strait story to play out with a superb cast and extremely talented group of filmmakers. This will be an enthralling series to follow.
The Straits screens on Thursdays at 8.30pm on ABC1. It also screens at 10.30pm on ABC2 and on iView.