Cannes 72 Countdown: A Cry in the Dark

This review first appeared on Filmotomy.com.

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We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.

A Cry in the Dark (1989) – Prix d’interprétation féminine – Meryl Streep

The court of public opinion may not have the authority to sentence someone to life in prison with hard labor, though it can certainly cast a nefarious influence on those who do wield such power. Long before a jury deliberates, often before a defendant first steps into the courtroom, and sometimes before a suspect is even charged, the public has already decided which way the scales ought to tip.

Media coverage, fueled by curated leaks and nasty rumors, will sensationalize a story over weeks—or years, in this case—and every juicy story needs a ripe villain for the bloodthirsty masses to eat up. And in A Cry in the Dark, Lindy Chamberlain is the character the public seeks to destroy.

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Lindy Chamberlain, for the record, is a real person. The death of her infant daughter in 1980 spawned one of the most publicized murder trials in Australian history. For two years, she and her family endured the scrutiny of the police, the media, and the people watching it all play out on TV.

Meryl Streep plays Lindy in A Cry in the Dark. She not only won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her portrayal—she also received an Oscar nomination, her eighth.

At the opening of the film, Lindy and her husband Michael (Sam Neill) take their children camping in the Outback, near Ayers Rock. In the evening, while the adults are socializing by the fire, Lindy spots a dingo rummaging in their tent—the tent where their nine-weeks-old baby Azaria sleeps. Lindy startles it. And the dingo flees with Azaria in its mouth, according to Lindy. No one else witnessed anything.

The coroner’s initial assessment supports her recounting of the events, but tiny inconsistencies in her memory compel the detectives to continue with their investigation. Eventually, Lindy is charged with the murder of Azaria, and her husband as accessory after the fact. But by this point the circus has already begun.

Lindy does not behave as she should, so say the people, who’ve been nitpicking her every word and mannerism from the start. Streep’s grieving mother is cold, too distant to be entertaining, or believed. Viewers want to watch her cry. They crave a televised breakdown. But Lindy denies them the pleasure of her pain. Thus, she’s painted as the villain—for not being a good enough victim.

Seeing how the sofa pundits and barstool commentators throughout the country have turned on her, Lindy’s legal team advises her to emote more for the jury, to get them on her side, to get them to see her as human. She won’t. She will not contribute to the frenzy. The iciness further solidifies her guilt in the minds of spectators.

The evidence—or lack thereof—doesn’t matter. It’s all basically circumstantial anyway. Lindy’s character however—her conduct, her refusal to cooperate—become Exhibits A-Z.

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Her husband’s behavior, on the other hand, is the opposite. Michael weeps in court. He blunders his testimony. And at one point he storms out when the gravity of it all gets too heavy. Sam Neill emits Michael’s pain in the way—dare I say—a woman would be expected to, yet it’s perceived as remorse, not innocence.

This reversal of norms renders Lindy the mastermind and Michael her accomplice. His sensitivity gets deemed as weakness, whereas her strength gets mischaracterized as evil.

Meryl Streep’s Lindy, though, is not necessarily unlikeable; she’s a woman unconcerned with being liked, a privilege only men can usually afford—especially when so much is at stake. Because Lindy won’t act the part, we struggle to grasp what exactly is going through her head at times, but that is in no way a detriment to Streep’s performance.

That complexity makes the movie more interesting and the role richer, because we find our minds wondering if she did in fact have anything to do with Azaria’s death. But, still, we root for her—assuming she’s innocent—as she fights several battles simultaneously. Lindy vs. the police, Lindy vs. the court of law, Lindy vs. the court public opinion, and also Lindy vs. herself.

She wrestles throughout A Cry in the Dark with this notation of reshaping herself so as to shape her own narrative, which she continually declines to do, to her family’s harm perhaps. Nevertheless, we can’t help but respect her fortitude.

And all throughout Lindy’s intersecting melees, Streep is perfectly composed, carefully executing calculated line deliveries, and fully in control of her physical presence. And turning men to stone with her glares.

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While I have no objections to Streep’s Australian accent, I’ll defer that ruling to my Filmotomy colleague Doug Jamieson. But, for what it’s worth, she has said in interviews that this one has been the most challenging to master. Regardless, there are few Meryl Streep lines more iconic than, “The dingo’s got my baby!” (Thanks largely to Elaine’s inflated mockery of it onSeinfeld.)

A Cry in the Dark would merely be a run-of-the-mill courtroom drama with a lesser actress in the role of Lindy Chamerlain. Meryl Streep, of course, expertly taps into the true nature of the character. Her Lindy, like the real-life one, defies the grain of a patriarchal society quick to judge her and unjustly condemn her for something so heinous, simply because she won’t behave on their terms.

Brandon Stanwyck