I've known of Tim Winton's book, Cloudstreet, for some years, and even have an idea I began to read it at one point, but I can't have got very far if I did as I have no memory of the story whatsoever.
The three episodes each have their own flavour: the first details the gradual coming together of the Pickles and Lamb families after tragedy has struck both families in different ways: father of three, Sam Pickles, has had all four fingers and part of a thumb chopped off in a work accident, and 'Fish' Lamb has been drowned - and revived in a miracle that turns out to be an enormous test of both families' faith - not just religious faith, but faith in life itself. As Winton, as narrator, notes in the book: “Life was something you didn't argue with, because when it came down to it, whether you barracked for God or nothing at all, life was all there was. And death.”
Winton is a Christian - check this interview for more information on that - and while his characters struggle with Christianity in any traditional sense, the book and the series are infused with an understanding that there is much more to this world than many modern people are willing to believe.
This first episode also introduces us to the House around which the remainder of the story is centred. This House has a past - and also an aboriginal man mysteriously connected to it - though not all the characters meet him face to face. The House (I capitalise it because it is a character in its own right) is possibly haunted because of what has happened in the past, and makes moanings and peculiar grindings and creakings throughout the story.
The second episode is rather more sombre in tone, even though several of the younger characters have sexual relationships with other young people during the course of it. In this episode the nine children have almost all grown up, though Fish remains a child to all intents and purposes because of the brain damage he suffered in his drowning. His gentle big brother 'Quick' (we're told in the book, but not in the drama, that he wasn't actually quick - it was a mocking kind of nickname; Fish was the quicker, the more intelligent of the two), continues to look after his handicapped brother until he can't take it any more and escapes the family.
The last episode winds up some of the corners of the plot, reveals some things that make a difference to how we view the characters, and ends spectacularly with a wedding and a birth on the same night.
The series is superbly acted, in particular by the four actors playing the parents: Essie Davis as the almost perpetually drunk Dolly Pickles, Stephen Curry as the laconic Sam, always on the lookout for luck; New Zealand's Kerry Fox as Oriel Lamb, sporting a broad Australian accent, and gritting her teeth in the face of what life has thrown at her, and Geoff Morrell as her husband, Lester, the man who never quite manages to please his wife in spite of supporting her, loving her and letting her find her own way through her problems over two long decades.
Lara Robinson and Emma Booth play the older and younger Rose Pickles, both of them bringing an intensity and inner rage to their acting. Todd Lasance and Callan McAuliffe play the quiet, sincere Quick, who more than once finds himself in a fantastic situation because of his slightly otherworldly brother. Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Tom Russell play Fish Lamb: both are marvellous in their depiction of someone who has been oxygen-starved and brought back into a world from which he had died. Johnstone-Burt in particular gets to grips with showing us the frustrations of a life lived only partly as it should be, alongside the joy of being a child in a man's garb and the belief that all things are possible: a talking pig, a dog rescued from the middle of nowhere in a 'boat' that's actually only a box and which is nowhere near water, being able to hear the sounds of the house and know its pain, plucking stars from the sky. In this story, many strange things happen, and curiously, some of the more prosaic characters actually experience them or see the consequences of them. It isn't just Fish Lamb who's attuned to a different world. Winton's universe is one which requires us to realise that however 'natural' or 'scientific' this world may be, it often exposes itself as something much more mysterious.
The production values in this series are top-notch: the photography captures the beauty of the world, and the strangeness of the house, and the people inhabiting it. The cast are uniformly excellent, with not a weak performance in sight. The world of the late forties and fifties are visible in every costume, prop and set. In fact, so evocative was it, that I was continually reminded of my own childhood, not just because of the settings but because of the behaviour of the people. Time and again I was reminded of the way my uncles and aunts and cousins behaved, the stance, the postures, the gritty faces, the expressions that came out of their mouths, the sounds that came out of their mouths, the perpetual cigarettes, that freedom of life we enjoyed in that time, when children could go off on their own for hours and no one would be troubled about where they were.
This was a treat to watch.