With Newton’s Law set to air, we look at nine times Australia’s legal system has been Exhibit-A on screens. By Caris Bizzaca.
Australia has an impressive amount of acclaimed crime films, docos and TV series, from Animal Kingdom to Conviction and Blue Heelers. But what about the drama that comes after the arrests – in the courtrooms and legal offices of Australia?
She says there’s a reason a lot of TV series are set in courts, police stations or even hospitals.
“It’s a story engine… so you can keep the plot alive,” she says.
“You never know what’s going to come through the door. You can explore worlds through the cases and bring stories to your characters. And you deal with a great cross-section of society.”
And for Newton’s Law in particular, being set in a legal world means Eagger and the team could deal with topics that have contemporary significance.
“So we deal with transgender (rights), offshore detention centres, family law issues – things that have relevance in people’s lives. But one of the big things for Newton’s Law was to try and do it in a funny, quite unexpected way.”
But it wasn’t without its challenges.
“Legal drama is very tricky because they’re very static places and there’s a lot of talk, so for us it’s about the balance between the characters, their relationships and the diverse stories we explore through the cases in the Magistrates Court and the rarefied world of the Supreme Court,” she says, calling it the “upstairs, downstairs” of legal dramas.
Here are Exhibits 1 through to 9 of Australian courtrooms featured on our screens, across film, TV and documentary.
Productions marked with a * were supported by Screen Australia or its predecessor agencies.
Newton’s Law (2017)*
A legal drama that looks not only at the lucrative, high-pressure world of a barrister, but the dilemmas of a solicitor’s office as well. It stars Claudia Karvan as Josephine Newton, who is seduced by her old uni friend Lewis Hughes (played by Toby Schmitz) to return to her brief but brilliant career at the Bar. When she struggles to leave her job as a suburban solicitor behind, she attempts to juggle both by opening a new Solicitor’s office in the carpark of Knox Chambers at the same time as dealing with a crumbling marriage, a teenage daughter and Lewis’ intoxicating charm. Episodes available on ABC iview from February 9.
Gettin’ Square (2003)*
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man, Burning Man) this comedic crime caper stars a pre-Avatar Sam Worthington as Wattsy, a criminal fresh out of prison who wants to go down the straight and narrow, but finds it much harder than expected. Worth watching purely just to see David Wenham’s hilarious turn as junkie Johnny ‘Spit’ Spitieri, a performance that earned him an Australian Comedy Award and an AFI Award for Best Actor. Available for purchase on DVD.
Australia on Trial (2011) *
This docudrama series delves into three controversial trials that took place in the 19th century and the ongoing social, moral and political impact they have had on the national identity – even today. Based on actual court reports, the cases recreated and put on the stand are The Eureka 13 Trial (1855), The Mount Rennie Rape Trial (1886) and The Myall Creek Massacre Trial (1838). Available to buy through December Media. Visit The Screen Guide for more info.
The Castle (1997)
Rob Sitch‘s iconic Aussie comedy revolves around the battle of one bloke, Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton), against the government, who are intent on booting him and his family out of their beloved home to make way for an airport expansion. Some of the film’s (many) hilarious lines come from within the court proceedings themselves, including the classic “suffer in ya jocks” and this mess of an argument about the eviction going against the “vibe” of the Constitution, courtesy of small-town lawyer Dennis (Tiriel Mora). Available on Stan, iTunes, Ozflix and more – see The Screen Guide viewing options for more details.
Rake (2010 – 2016)*
Richard Roxburgh stars as the brilliant but self-destructive Sydney barrister Cleaver Green across all four seasons of this ABC series. A criminal lawyer driven to defend the indefensible (cannibals are included in his clients), his personal life is even more colourful than the cases he represents. Loosely based on Charles Waterstreet, it was co-created by Roxburgh and Peter Duncan, and produced by Essential Media and Entertainment. The most recent series finished up in 2016, but you can catch the first three seasons on Stan and Netflix, amongst others.
The Lloyd Rayney Story (2014)*
This documentary takes audiences inside one of the most expensive and extensive murder investigations in Western Australia’s history – when high-profile lawyer Lloyd Rayney was accused of murdering his wife Corryn in 2007. Rayney, silent throughout the controversial trial when it seemed the world was against him, speaks out about his nightmare journey through the ordeal in this film by Artemis International. Available to watch via Vimeo on Demand.
Breaker Morant (1980)*
Directed and co-written by Bruce Beresford, this film centres around three Lieutenants who in 1902, at the height of the Boer War, were court-marshalled for murdering POWs and a German missionary. The story takes place during the trial – one of the first war crimes prosecutions in British military history – with flashbacks to the events in question. It stars Edward Woodward as Lieutenant Harry Morant, alongside a cast that includes Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson. Now considered an Australian classic, it won 10 AFI Awards and the screenplay, which was adapted from the 1978 play of the same name, was nominated for an Academy Award®. Available on Dendy Direct and iTunes – see The Screen Guide for more details.
The Man Who Sued God (2001)*
Scottish comedian Billy Connolly stars as a lawyer-turned-fisherman Steve Myers whose home (a boat) is struck by lightning and sinks, along with all his earthly possessions in it. When the insurance company deems it an Act of God and refuses to compensate the cost, Myers decides to sue the only party left: God. Also starring Judy Davis, Colin Friels and Emily Browning in her feature film debut.
Janet King (2014 – )
A spin-off from the 2011 series Crownies, it stars Marta Dusseldorp as Senior Crown Prosecutor Janet King, who returns to the Bar from maternity leave and is thrown into a high-profile murder case. The steely King navigates corruption and conspiracies over two seasons of this ABC series, which also stars Vince Colosimo as Chief Superintendent Jack Rizzoli. A third season was greenlit by ABC in May last year. Available on Stan.