“I see women out walking with their babies like it’s nothing,” says Jenna Coleman’s Joanna in new BBC thriller The Cry, gazing at her own incessantly wailing newborn. “I never even saw them before Noah. Now I want to yell out to them like marathon runners: ‘You’re amazing.’”
We’re experiencing a boon in quality, at the moment, when it comes to the portrayal of motherhood on TV. Particularly the dark, unsatisfying aspects of it – which until recently were something of a taboo.
In fact, if the BBC ever decides to do a crossover episode, Joanna could do with a friend like Liz from BBC2’s brilliant dark comedy Motherland, whose refreshingly lax advice for a children’s birthday party is to “buy four caterpillar cakes from Asda and put them together to make one big Human Centipede cake, then just let the kids help themselves. Don’t even bother with a knife, just let them dig their creepy little hands in.”
Instead, frayed, exhausted and struggling to bond with her three-month-old son, Joanna must put up with constant judgement from friends and passers-by. “How many layers have you got him in there?” asks an acquaintance, peering suspiciously into his pram. “Is he not hot?” Her political aide husband Alistair, played by Ewen Leslie, isn’t much help. At night, the plugs barely leave his ears.
It is this deftly handled depiction of parenting that makes The Cry, based on a novel by Helen Fitzgerald, worth watching – not the dramatic abduction to which the first episode is building. After all, when it comes to creating tension, who needs a kidnapping in rural Australia when you can watch a mother attempt to subdue her screaming baby on a 30-hour flight?
Still, the abduction – told through a flashback/forward structure that is sometimes effective, sometimes confusing – is compelling enough fare. Joanna and Alistair are down under in an attempt to take custody of the latter’s 14-year-old daughter Chloe (Markella Kavenagh) – a scheme Joanna quietly deems “so cruel”, though his ex-wife Alexandra (Asher Keddie) is prepared to fight him. They haven’t even made it to Chloe, though, when disaster strikes.
The most affecting thing in the immediate aftermath of Noah’s disappearance is not Alistair’s frantic panic, but the inscrutability of Joanna’s reaction. In the space of a few seconds, she looks shocked, concerned, distressed... relieved? We know from the beginning of the episode that she’ll end up on trial – but it’s not yet clear for what.
Coleman was initially hesitant to take on the role. Having no children herself, she was concerned that it would seem inauthentic. “I spent a good first chunk of it,” she said, “just thinking they’d completely miscast.”
They haven’t. She is brilliant as a woman quietly unravelling, disassociating, begging her bawling baby to “please stop, please stop”. It is thanks to her that The Cry is such bruising, engaging viewing.
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