A vast sky dusted with stars like icing sugar on a cake, an endless vista of soul-bleaching nothingness. The headlamps of the “ute” (utility vehicle), abandoned in the bare arena, finally wink out. The doors are open and the occupant has vanished. In daylight, two carefree white backpackers in a buggy bump out to the site, circle the ute a few times — oops, there goes the footprint evidence — and later the police arrive. There’s no sign of the young driver, Marley Thompson, an aboriginal worker on a nearby cattle station. Thus, pregnant with brooding unease and racial discontent, begins Mystery Road, a series made for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and now beginning its run on BBC4.
Aboriginal detective Jay Swan, played by Aaron Pedersen, first made an appearance in the 2013 film of the same name. The iconic Judy Davis joins Pedersen as senior sergeant Emma James, a slight but stern figure running the police station at this remote north-western outpost where life revolves around the bar, the diner and the dusty street. Emma is displeased to be sent back-up. “Just because you’re aboriginal,” she fumes, trumping his racial advantage with her local knowledge. But not everyone accepts her authority; Marley’s mum Kerry (Deborah Mailman) flinches angrily when Emma offers a consoling touch. The white establishment doesn’t really care about aboriginal welfare.
Any hope that Jay’s darker skin will gain traction where Emma’s snowy one fails is quickly dashed. The bland demeanour of the indigenous townsfolk is a thin crust over deep wells of resentment; he’s seen as “selling out to the whitefella”. The prolonged staring match between Jay and ex-con Larry (Wayne Blair) is unsettling, a duel of stubborn dark eyes. Pedersen’s characterisation is subtle and underplayed, and his scenes with Davis crackle with tension.
The aboriginal community itself is riven with discord. Larry is Marley’s uncle, his despicable crime rendering him “a cockroach”. The aboriginal council is run by Keith Groves (veteran Australian actor Ernie Dingo), widely seen as lining his own pockets. And why does no one seem bothered about the disappearance of Marley, a talented footballer — or is that aspiration too seen as being a sellout?
A story where an investigation of a crime is the first thread to unravel the whole jumper is not exactly original, but the closely plotted social, racial and political nuances set Mystery Road apart. For all their differences, Jay and Emma can at least agree that beyond whitefella and blackfella, the real issue is the badfella. There’s a tragic coda too: the young Scottish backpacker Genevieve is played by the luminous Jessica Falkholt, who was killed along with her family in a car crash last Christmas.
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