If you ever find yourself trapped in a decrepit convent on a far-flung island, run by creepy nuns who look like Macbeth’s witches and shriek proclamations such as “today is dying day!” and “my flesh is real food!” consider the following a word of advice. Do not accept from them a cup of tea they call “Stay at Home” and do not, under any circumstances, no matter how frustrating the experience, criticise these zealots for telling different and thoroughly warped versions of popular fairytales.
These were a couple of the take-home lessons I gleaned from Foxtel’s intensely gothic and deliriously compelling four-part series Lambs of God, from the creator/writer Sarah Lambert (adapting Marele Day’s best-selling novel) and, marking his best work yet, director Jeffrey Walker (Ali’s Wedding, Dance Academy: The Movie, Riot). It plays out like a religious-themed Misery, with a hapless male protagonist rather, shall we say, overcome by hosts of a place that wouldn’t get a great rating on AirBnB.
Shot by the veteran cinematographer Donald McApline, whose five decade-long oeuvre includes classics such as The Getting of Wisdom, My Brilliant Career, Breaker Morant, Predator and Moulin Rouge!, Lambs of God has a darkly beautiful and surreal aesthetic, the air so thick and gluggy you could cut it with a knife. The show’s energy feels like it wafted onto the frame from a potion cooked up a big black cauldron, creating the kind of atmosphere you can feel in the flesh of your temples.
Walker opens the first episode with a shot crawling across a vast body of greyish-blue water, towards a foliage-splotched rocky island with steep cliff faces. It looks like the sort of location where an Agatha Christie murder mystery might take place (And Then There Were None, for instance) but instead it is the isolated home of three crazy-eyed nuns, located somewhere south of Tasmania and west of hell.
They are Sister Iphigenia (Essie Davis), whose recreational pursuits include staring into fires and witnessing hideous visions, Sister Margarita (Ann Dowd – an expert at playing creepy characters, as this hashtag demonstrates) and the youngest, Sister Carla (Jessica Barden) who has never left the island nor seen a man.
That changes when Father Ignatius (Sam Reid) stumbles into the convent and interrupts the group’s lambs-blood-drinking ways. After a fit of hollering and knife waving – two common activities on this island – the trio wearily welcome their new visitor, or at least acknowledge his presence. They are intrigued by his cordless (that is, mobile) phone, an early indication that these women don’t get out much.
The nuns may be stark raving mad, but stupid, they are not. The older pair ascertain that Ignatius is there because the church intends to redevelop the property, paving pietistic paradise to put up a parking lot (for a planned luxury resort). They decide they simply cannot allow that to happen. This causes problems for all parties, to say the least, connecting to a cynical view of contemporary Catholicism as a political entity of statecraft and smoke-filled rooms, partial to conspiracies and cover-ups.
Early in the piece, before the proverbial really hits the fan, Ignatius listens to Sister Margarita mutilate the story of Beauty and the Beast, in a hallucinogenic moment that establishes a compelling, reality-shifting tangent extending across the four episodes. In this example and others, including tales from the Bible, the details of the stories as the women tell them differ wildly from those that Ignatius and the television audience know.
It’s not that they are incorrect, per se. These reshaped stories retain the original framework but have evolved into repurposed narratives with different messages and different means of appreciation. It is a Joseph Campbell-esque concept, exploring the myth of origins and pop culture’s infinite cycle. In this sense the show has similarities to the brilliant stage production Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which explores, as this review pointed out, the first line of Joan Didion’s 1979 essay The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Devilish humour is laced throughout, with a sardonic kind of coyness that is at times difficult to read and even almost imperceptible. Knock-out performances from an outstanding cast keep the drama trembling with emotion – usually of the bone-shaking, skin-jiggling, eye-bulging kind – and Lambert’s excellent writing remains structurally unpredictable. Lambs of God is audacious, that’s for sure. And it has “future cult classic” written all over it.