As the stern, secretive, and guarded veterinarian Dr. Kate McDonald (Rachel Ward) quickly learns at the start of the six-part Australian miniseries Rain Shadow, first impressions can be deceiving. Having chased away six other young wide-eyed optimists in a “revolving door of assistants," when the fresh-faced recent university graduate Jill Blake (Victoria Thaine) arrives to become her first female co-veterinarian at her fledgling practice in the desolate and unforgiving terrain of the drought-ridden Australian outback, Kate assumes it’s only a matter of minutes before Jill will climb back into her mini “roller skate with windows” and drive back to the big city. And although Jill’s resume reveals a listless nature and the inability to stay in one position for any significant amount of time, the bright and overly confident young woman toughs it out alongside Kate in the small town of Paringa and refuses to quit-- discovering that despite her status as an outsider, even the questioning locals greet her with much more courtesy than her new employer.
And while attitude-wise the women couldn’t be more different, upon closer inspection, one realizes how similar they are, as the emotionally haunted widow Kate who’s remained in Paringa for the ten years following her five year marriage which brought her from England to Australia, still remains something of an enigma and outsider as well. While it’s never referenced directly, the ten year death of her husband marks the same length of time that the town has gone without rain and as the filmmakers noted in a behind-the-scenes making of featurette on the 2-Disc DVD set of Rain Shadow--Series 1, Kate seems to be the human representation of the setting as someone director Fiona Banks notes is “so firmly rooted,” she’s become “part of the landscape.” Yet, looks and impressions can mislead as not only Kate discovers but viewers do as well upon realizing that for a work that upon first glance one might liken to Sarah Plain and Tall or The Little House on the Prairie is instead much more topical and compelling in its stark, gripping portrayal of not only the human drama involved in the characters’ lives but also-- as indicative of its title-- the underlying centerpiece about climate change, in serving up a “real social situation that has its own sense of drama,” as explained on the disc.
Ward and Thaine give remarkable performances in this underrated gem of a series also featuring a tremendous soundtrack from the Audreys, which finally makes its stateside debut from Acorn Media in the form of a lush 2-Disc gorgeously packaged set with a breathtaking transfer to DVD. So popular in its native Australia that a second season has been commissioned, as noted in the press release and despite the one flaw of not including English subtitles or closed captioning for the deaf or hard of hearing-- it’s a wonderful set that’s as engrossing as it is incredibly timely.
While the actresses both reveal that they were drawn to the work precisely because it is so rare to have two strong and complicated female leads, it’s a marvel on so many levels as Ward continued that essentially it takes the paradigm of “the old cop and the rookie cop” and gives it a gender switch. Typically the roles of women in the realm of miniseries and melodramas find them bonding over their families and marital woes but in the world of Rain Shadow, they are the two most highly-educated and professional inhabitants of Paringa. However, as they and the audience frequently discover, intellectual knowledge and the truth of life are often two entirely different things as Jill learns the difference between moral and literal laws since Paringa seems to survive with its mere twenty-five centimeters of rain per year completely in the gray area between what’s simply black and white. When she begins to fear that a certifiably dangerous disease has begun infecting some of the sheep, Jill must come to terms with how such a governmental announcement and action would impact a community that’s barely hanging on as farmers find themselves losing their property and barely making ends meet.
Filling the series with a cast of extraordinarily fascinating and rich supporting characters including the hardworking, embittered Tom (Tom O’Sullivan) who fears that he may not be able to financially take over his family farm when his father dies, the handsome Shane (Nathin Butler) who’s walking his flock of sheep to greener pastures, the wealthy and influential Lachlan and Sarah Balfour (Kim Knuckey and Heather Mitchell) who seem to hold sway over the community, Kate’s hermit neighbor Steve Willis (Edwun Hodgeman) who’s as illusive as Charlie on Charlie’s Angels, and also the lonely Harry Greene (Shane Withington). In Rain Shadow, there’s never a shortage of drama.
However, perhaps the most fascinating character is in the form of Gary Sweet’s Larry Riley, the mysteriously wealthy sports car driving, cash carrying, handsome yet intimidating client of Kate’s whose cancer-ridden cat is his “best mate.” Although no one has any distinct idea of what exactly Larry does for a living (one of the Paringa rules it seems is to cease asking questions aside from ambushing Jill about her marital status as soon as she arrives), when he shows up with a gunshot wound, we’re fairly certain it’s not exactly something on the level. Yet the “almost subversive but quite likable character,” whom Sweet describes as a “bad guy with integrity,” is one of Kate’s most loyal allies which definitely comes in handy as the women find themselves threatened by a unscrupulous, sexist vet eager to put them out of business.
Surprisingly topical in dealing not just with economic woes, climate change, sexism, euthanasia, family duty, and the disappearance of farms from the global landscape, there’s also a terrific subplot involving the arrival of an Iraqi doctoral level scientist, Achmed Aziz (Panda Likoudis) who soon gets over his shock of seeing women holding such a professional rank to begin finding himself drawn in by the community, becoming the unlikely sidekick to Harry Greene as they study the weather patterns of the area for more than one hundred years.
Although I fear it will go overlooked because of first impressions, hopefully you’ll take a cue from Ward’s stubborn Kate and take a chance on the wonderfully crafted Australian import Rain Shadow which hits DVD shelves and online retailers including Amazon on October 21, 2008 exclusively from Acorn Media. And in doing so, I think you'll find that-- much like Jill-- there's much more to Rain Shadow and the fictitious setting of Paringa than initially meets the eye.