Serving as Disney+ first scripted Australian Original series, The Clearing is a crime-thriller based on J.P. Pomare’s best-selling novel ‘In the Clearing’, which was heavily inspired by the evil and haunting darkness of real-life cults in Australian and around the world. Boasting a myriad of Aussie talent both in front of and behind the camera, including stars Teresa Palmer, Guy Pearce and Miranda Otto, plus Gracie Otto and Jeffrey Walker as directors, this eight-part series takes an already well-established genre of Australian television in crime-thrillers, but this time swaps the gangsters in Melbourne and Sydney’s underbellies for the harrowing and isolated forest lands of Blackmarsh, where The Kindred embody evil.
When a young local girl named Asha goes missing, feared abducted, triggering flashbacks and memories re-emerge for single parent Freya (Teresa Palmer), of an abstract childhood where she had bowl-cut-fringed, bleached-blonde hair, and a uniformed white dress that matched with many other children in her visions. Unsure of how much she is remembering is real or not, Freya’s concern focuses back on her son Billy when a van unsettlingly lingers around her isolated home in the wood, matching an eye-witness account of a van see nearby the area of Asha’s last known location.
Meanwhile, deep in the woods of Blackmarsh, a strange and brutal cult called The Kindred becomes the new home for the abducted Asha. Taking young children all dressed and haircut like the children in Freya’s flashbacks against their will and indoctrinating them for an initially unknown cause, The Kindred is ruled over by The Aunties, who serve their leader, Adrienne Beaufort (Miranda Otto) and her scientific confidant, Dr. Bryce Latham (Guy Pearce). Asha befriends teenager Amy (Julia Savage), who begins to show her the way of life at Blackmarsh, but a defiant Asha does not assimilate to Adrienne Beaufort’s liking, resulting in dark consequences.
Despite being inspired by some incredibly disturbing true stories, The Clearing unfortunately doesn’t always thematically, tonally, or even graphically lean enough into its darker side, often feeling like an odd young adult take on True Detective. The Kindred’s master plan, which is revealed within the first two episodes of this series, should lend enough gravitas to have audiences feeling overwhelmingly distraught, especially since the plan involved innocent children. But that darkness is hindered by the fact that the limitations and boundaries it’s willing to put on the source material are played out early on, leaving a lot to be desired when it comes to the attempt at being a confronting crime-thriller.
A noticeable reason as to why the psychologically tense moments of the show don’t work as well is some of the performances, particularly those of people in The Kindred, Otto included. While cult leaders in real life are genuinely ego-driven, larger-than-life, despicable characters, Otto’s take on Adrienne Beaufort plays off more like a The Hunger Games villain. There is seemingly little to no threat with her character. That’s not to put the entirety of the blame on Otto’s performance, because the character herself has been written with many corny “look at me, I’m evil” lines, mixed with a healthy dash of ‘being-nice-to-seem-off-putting’. Many of the actors in The Kindred also break the immersion with questionable acting.
Teresa Palmer is the most grounded character of the series so far and lends a solid foundation of dramatic work in her filmography to engagingly play Freya as someone who is truly battling the demons of her past. While the first two episodes of The Clearing act as an on-ramp for the psychological torment that Freya will seemingly go through in later episodes, Palmer, despite not the best character material, is giving her all to bring Freya to life.
From a visual aesthetic point of view, there are moments of The Clearing that directors Gracie Otto and Jeffery Walker have really captured a feeling of dread in every shot and scene. The darkness of the shows tone is exacerbated more by the broodingly slow camera, rather than the story itself. The locations used in The Clearing have this natural beauty that Australia is known for, but also carry secrets and demons within the trees, making for some unsettling visual elements.
The Clearing is a crime-thriller that unfortunately lacks the thrills. A story that is dark just based on the subject matter alone constantly has its punches pulled back, taking its disturbing nature and dread-filled tone with it. With underwhelming performances and a less than engaging plot, The Clearing feels like a show that will fade away into the dark woods of streaming obscurity.