Cry in the Dark, A (1988): Schepsi’s Superb Fact-Based Drama, Starring the Incomparable Meryl Streep and a Terrific Sam Neill

In A Cry in the Dark, Fred Schepsi’s sharply intelligent, fact-based drama, the incomparable Meryl Streep is cast as a defiant working-class woman accused of being responsible for the death of her baby girl in the wilderness. 
Our Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)
Evil Angels

Based on the 1980 story of Lindy Chamberlain, this complex role shows her to be proudly stubborn, a victim of the Australian sensationalistic and merciless media; she was acquitted in 1987.
Aussie actor Sam Neill plays her husband. The couple faces hostility from the press and the people because they are members of an out of the mainstream religious group, plus Lindy is perceived to be too detached, cold and unemotional in her testimony at court.
Oscar Nominations: 1
Actress: Meryl Streep
Oscar Awards: None
Oscar Context:
The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Jodie Foster for “The Accused,” in a race that also included Glenn Close (“Dangerous Liaisons”), Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl,” and Sigourney Weaver in “Gorillas in the Mist.”   

A Cry in the Dark outside (released as “Evil Angels” in Australia and New Zealand), a chronicle of terrible disaster, directed and co-written by Fred Schepisi.

The screenplay by Schepisi and Robert Caswell is based on John Bryson’s 1985 book of the same name.

It chronicles the case of Azaria Chamberlain, a baby girl of 9 weeks, who disappeared from a campground near Uluru in August 1980 and the struggle of her parents, Michael and Lindy Chamberlain, to prove their innocence to a public convinced that they were complicit in her death.

John Bryson’s book “Evil Angels” was published in 1985 and the film rights were bought by Verity Lambert, who hired Robert Caswell wrote a script and Fred Schepisi agreed to direct.

The movie, one of the most expensive and elaborate ever shot in Australia, reportedly boasts over 300 cast members (some only briefly seen or heard) and over 4,000 extras.

Schepisi takes a methodical approach, deliberately and successfully avoiding the mode of a TV docudrama. Under his helm, the movie is not a tale of a comforting celebration of personal triumph over travails. The dread is so particular and consistent that it is very disturbing up to the end.

Sam Neill, who had costarred with Meryl Streep in Plenty, is excellent as the humble, bewildered, tormented man who finally breaks under cross-examination.

Taking risks by playing an unsympathetic role, Streep supplies the emotional and dramatic aspects that are missing from the script, which at times comes across as too procedural. The courtroom confrontations are too conventional and dry.

There’s never doubt in the audience’s mind about what has happened. The audience doesn’t worry about the fate of the Chamberlains as much as it worries about the unconvincing ease with which justice is miscarried.

Schepisi followed the facts of the case, but he has not made them comprehensible in terms of the film. The manner by which justice miscarries is the real subject.

The film was released less than two months after the Chamberlains were exonerated by the Northern Territory Court of Appeals of all charges against them.

Streep’s performance deservedly received a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Using a perfect accent, Streep renders a skillfully understated, not a showy, performance, showing fearlessness in playing an admirably off-putting femme.

It was a box office bomb, grossing only $6.9 million against its $15 million budget.

Narrative Structure (Detailed Plot)

Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor Michael Chamberlain, his wife Lindy Chamberlain, their two sons, and their nine-week-old daughter Azaria are on a camping holiday in the Australian Outback. With the baby sleeping in their tent, the family enjoys a barbecue with their fellow campers when a cry is heard. Lindy returns to the tent to check and is certain she sees a dingo with something in its mouth running off as she approaches. When she discovers the infant is missing, everyone joins forces to search for her, without success. It is assumed what Lindy saw was the animal carrying off the child, and a subsequent inquest rules her account of events is true.

The tide of public opinion turns against the Chamberlains, as Lindy seems too stoic, too cold-hearted, too lightly accepting of the disaster. Gossip swells and is confused as hard facts. The couple’s beliefs are not widely acceptable, and when the media report that the name Azaria means “sacrifice in the wilderness,” the public begin to believe that they decapitated their baby with scissors as part of religious rite.

Law officials find new witnesses, forensics experts, and circumstantial evidence and reopen the investigation, eventually charging Lindy with murder.

Though seven-months pregnant, Lindy ignores her attorneys’ advice to play on the jury’s sympathy and appears stoic on the stand, which some onlookers see as admission of guilt. As the trial progresses, Michael’s faith in his religion and his belief in his wife falter, and he stumbles through his testimony, which some see as concealing the truth.

In October 1982, Lindy is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor, while Michael is found guilty as accessory and given a suspended sentence of 18 months.

More than three years later, while searching for the body of an English tourist who fell from Uluru, police discover clothing identified as the jacket Lindy had claimed Azaria was wearing over her jumpsuit, which had been recovered early on in the investigation.

As a result, she is immediately released from prison, the case is reopened, and all convictions against the Chamberlains are overturned.

The film ends on an upbeat note, with Michael’s commentary on the ongoing battle to clear the family’s name.

Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain
Sam Neill as Michael Chamberlain
Bruce Myles as Ian Barker, Q.C.
Neil Fitzpatrick as John Phillips, Q.C.
Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell as Justice James Muirhead
Maurie Fields as Justice Denis Barritt
Nick Tate as Det. Graeme Charlwood
Lewis Fitz-Gerald as Stuart Tipple
Dorothy Alison as Avis Murchison, Lindy’s mother


Warner (Cannon, Golan-Globus production)

Directed by Fred Schepisi
Produced by Verity Lambert
Screenplay by Robert Caswell, Fred Schepisi, based on Evil Angels by John Bryson
Music by Bruce Smeaton
Cinematography Ian Baker
Edited by Jill Bilcock
Distributed by Warner Bros. (US)
Cannon Films (International)

Release date: Nov 3, 1988 (Australia); Nov 11, 1988 (US)

Running time: 121 minutes
Budget $15 million
Box office $6.9 million (US)