Boy Swallows Universe takes to the small screen this week and if author Trent Dalton ever writes a sequel, he should call it Boy Conquers Universe.
The book won people over, the stage play directed by Sam Strong was excellent and the seven-episode Netflix series is absolutely brilliant.
I am, if I may say, a tough audience. I watch Netflix all the time, as we do, and I love it but if I’m half an hour into a series and it hasn’t grabbed me it is jettisoned.
Tuesday night at what was dubbed “The Global Premiere of Boy Swallows Universe” we sat through the first two episodes and I can report that the long-awaited series, which comes to Netflix this Thursday, January 11, is compelling, funny, sad and a bizarre love letter to the demimonde of Brisbane, the darkish underbelly of the burgeoning city in which Trent Dalton grew up in a family riddled with poverty, drugs and crime but also with – and this is the real point – love.
Everyone knows Dalton, a journalist and author with a national profile whose public persona is one of effusive generosity, and is all about love, as his follow-up novels have made clear.
The Boy Swallows Universe Netflix series retro soundtrack was on high rotation at the party before the premiere, but I didn’t hear Love is in the Air played, even though that could have been the theme song. The event itself was the like of nothing Brisbane has ever seen before.
The street beside the popular inner-city New Farm Cinemas, where the premiere was held, was closed off, crowds gathered beyond the barriers to ogle the stars of the show and inside those barriers those of us lucky enough to be invited were pretty impressed and we ogled the stars just as eagerly.
There was Bryan Brown, Simon Baker, Travis Fimmel and others, the red carpet awash with star power.
After a solid 90 minutes of partying outside, the event moved inside with screenings in several cinemas, Dalton and the cast traipsing from one to the other to introduce the first two episodes, based on his novel and filmed here in Brisbane, his hometown.
That’s one of the things that makes it special and authentic although other capital cities will recognise themselves in this very Australian story.
We have heard talk that there will be Boy Swallows Universe tours of the Queensland capital in future and they will be rather different to the usual tourist trail because visitors generally don’t visit the outer limits, where crime and underprivilege sometimes rule.
Dalton grew up in this world and his novel is very autobiographical (his mum says it is even more biographical than he will admit to), which makes it even more intriguing.
Netflix has thrown everything at making this a hit and if the first two episodes are any indication it will be. The casting is brilliant.
Travis Fimmel is extraordinarily good as stepdad Lyle; Simon Baker is biological dad Robert Bell and I expect he’s also amazing but haven’t seen his episodes yet. Nor did we see Zac Burgess as older Eli Bell on opening night. Bryan Brown as convicted murderer and babysitter Slim Halliday is just superb. The man is a laconic genius whose seemingly effortless screen presence is a huge drawcard.
Phoebe Tonkin is a revelation as mum Frankie Bell, Sophie Wilde is love interest of protagonist Eli Bell, reporter Caitlyn Spies while Anthony LaPaglia rules the screen as mogul Tytus Broz. And there’s Deborah Mailman and many other outstanding actors.
Felix Cameron plays central character Eli Bell and Lee Tiger Halley is his brother Gus. Both boys are terrific but Felix Cameron is next level. He owns the screen and is so natural and engaging with acting skills way beyond his years. It’s a stunning performance that doesn’t even feel like a performance. It is just so real.
Episode 1: Boy Smells Rat is about Eli discovering his stepdad Lyle Orlik is dealing heroin again and he fears for his mum, a recovering heroin addict.
Episode 2: Boy Gets Chop introduces us to the bizarre workplace of Lyle, a prosthetics factory, and includes a scene at the restaurant at Darra on Brisbane’s outskirts, made famous by the book, the play and now the series. I’m talking about Que Huong Restaurant which is, I suggest, about to get busier than it has ever been.
In the book the restaurant is owned by a Vietnamese drug dealer played by Haiha Le who is superb in the role.
Readers all over the world now know this coming-of-age story set in 1980s Brisbane, blending the magic and innocence of youth with the brutal reality of the adult world. A lost father, a mute brother, a recovering heroin addict mum, a heroin dealer for a stepfather and a notorious criminal for a baby sitter – Eli Bell is in a strange place for a kid but, somehow, he is not embittered and strives to be a good person.
It doesn’t take long to fall in love with him and his family – even dropkick stepdad Lyle who is the most likeable heroin dealer on screen yet.
The art direction is superb with the details of the era lovingly created including the retro music, the architecture, the fashion and the cars. It’s a priceless moment when Lyle says that he will go out and “warm up the Datsun”. Hilarious.
Great to see local Queensland actors in it too, including everyone’s favourite Bryan Probets, recently Ebenezer Scrooge on stage. In this series he is a schoolteacher at the rough outer suburban state school attended by Eli and Gus. Probets dons the uniform of teachers of the day – shorts, long socks and short-sleeve shirt with bad tie. Remember when our teachers wore that uniform?
This is a Brouhaha Entertainment, Chapter One, Anonymous Content production. There is a world-class creative team behind the seven-part series, which was filmed on location and shot over five months.
Writer John Collee of Hotel Mumbai fame worked closely with Trent Dalton; multi-award-winning executive producer Joel Edgerton; Emmy-winning director Bharat Nalluri, who directed Shantaram (so he knows the territory) and worked with Jocelyn Moorhouse on this production; BAFTA-nominated producer Sophie Gardiner; series producer and executive producer Andrew Mason, producer of three Matrix movies; and others including executive producers Troy Lum and Andrew Mason who were on hand for the premiere.
And yes, it is, on the one hand, uniquely Brisbane but in wider terms, it is an Australian story. And it is stunning.
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