Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The Clearing, on Hulu

This Australian cult has its members undergo recorded confessions, or so-called “clearings,” which provide them ample blackmail fodder, should anyone ever step out of line. Gee, can you imagine any purported cults with ties to Hollywood engaging in similar practices? Yet, for Australian audiences, the cult matriarch’s “children,” amassed through questionable adoptions and foster arrangements, would immediately recall “The Family,” led by Anne Hamilton-Byrnes. In the case of Adrienne Beaufort’s cult, things start to fall apart when an over-zealous member kidnaps a little girl, who refuses to be indoctrinated into the “family.” The mystery of young Sara’s fate will haunt every character in writer-creators Matt Cameron & Elise McCredie’s The Clearing, which premieres today on Hulu.

Sometime in the past, Freya (as she now calls herself) was traumatically associated with the cult based at Bronte-esque Blackmarsh Manor. She got out, but the scars remain, especially when news of a child abduction triggers (the word is actually appropriate in this case) bad memories.

Tamsin Latham is a true believer, unwaveringly devoted to Beaufort, but her initiative has been disastrous. No matter how hard they try to brainwash Sara, she refuses to accept her new name, “Asha,” or her new “mother.” Beaufort’s favorite “child,” possibly her own biological daughter, Amy, was supposed to win Sara/Asha over. Instead, the little girl’s deep sense of self raises questions in Amy, at the worst possible time—right before her first ritual “clearing.”

Cameron and McCredie play a lot of devious games with the timeline that might be easier to guess from this review than from watching
The Clearing from the start, despite my good faith efforts to be vague and misdirecting. However, they are not simply being clever for the sake of cleverness. By the time you get through the first four episodes provided for review (out of eight), you get a potent sense of how the sins of the past continue to exert an evil influence over everyone in the present, especially since several characters cut their own deals, rather than holding fast to their principles.

Without question, Miranda Otto is the star of
Clearing as the chillingly regal Beaufort. She makes the cult leader’s Svengali-like control over people totally believable and absolutely terrifying. Likewise, Kate Mulvany might be even scarier as the sadistic Latham, who seems to have joined the cult for the opportunity to bully children. Guy Pearce is also pretty creepy and clammy as Beaufort’s consigliere and theoretician, Dr. Bryce Latham, but it is still not clear why the role was meaty enough to attract the well-known thesp.

Teresa Palmer plays Freya as such a bundle of nerves, many viewers might lose patience with her. However, Lily LaTorre is really quite remarkable as the distressingly small and vulnerable Sara (a.k.a. Asha). Her portrayal of the young girl’s refusal to surrender her identity is truly heroic.

In terms of category,
The Clearing largely fits the mystery/thriller criteria, but sometimes it has a bit of a horror vibe. Partly, that is just because cults are inherently disturbing. The children’s bleach-blond page-boy hair-cuts also obviously evoke memories of Village of the Damned, but the sense that the dormant Blackmarsh cult could pop-up and reassert itself again at any moment, like Michael Myers, is what makes the show so pervasively eerie. Cameron and McCredie skillfully maximize the mysteriousness of their fractured narrative and build a good deal of suspense, at least so far. Recommended for fans of cult thrillers, The Clearing starts streaming today (5/24) on Hulu.