The Clearing review – Miranda Otto is a chilling cult leader in eerie mystery drama

Who doesn’t love a story about cults? Part of their appeal, other than watching people do creepy stuff in picturesque locations, comes from the viewer thinking: “Sure, I’ve made mistakes, but at least I’ve never taken orders from a maniac ranting about enlightenment.”

The Clearing, the first Australian original scripted series from Disney+, is eerier than your average production involving oddly compelling leaders and ritual-following disciples, in that the story involves targeting children. After an opening shot of a woman being submerged in a mist-covered lake, series co-director Jeffrey Walker segues to the chilling roadside abduction of an eight-year-old girl, Sara (Lily LaTorre). She’s taken to Blackmarsh, a property in rural Victoria, and forced into a cult led by the charismatic and debonair Adrienne (Miranda Otto), who aspires to raise children who are “pure and untainted … away from the suffocating rules of society”.

Adrienne achieves this supposed purity by restricting the children’s access to the outside world (so: no Bluey), depriving them of food, giving them LSD and dressing them in identical clothes with identical bleach blonde haircuts – reminiscent, in cinematic terms, of the kids from Village of the Damned.

Related: Growing up with The Family: inside Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s sinister cult

Created by Matt Cameron and Elise McCredie, the series was adapted from JP Pomare’s novel In the Clearing, which was inspired by the real-life cult the Family. The Australian doomsday cult was led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a yoga teacher who claimed to be Jesus Christ reincarnated and preached “a mishmash of Christianity, eastern mysticism and apocalyptic prophecy”.

This stranger-than-fiction story has been the subject of other works, including the 2019 documentary series The Cult of the Family. It lends itself well to drama, which offers more freedom for a heavily sculpted, moody atmosphere and the performative space for an actor to take on that holy grail of roles: the cult leader. Otto is very well cast in this part, projecting a chillingly holier-than-thou temperament: smug, screwy, sophisticated and, of course, batshit crazy.

For the first couple of episodes at least (all that was made available to review), her presence is carefully metered. We wait for the big moments of cult-y weirdness but, at least initially, the show’s directors – Walker and Otto’s half-sister Gracie Otto – treat Adrienne a little like the shark from Jaws: more scary as an idea than in flesh and blood. A scaled-back performance from Guy Pearce as the fusty, softly-spoken Dr Bryce Latham, who is also part of the cult, solidifies a sense that The Clearing isn’t doing a lot with its big hitters.

The show’s best performance belongs to Teresa Palmer, a fine actor with a knack for looking haunted in non-obvious ways; a quick look at her face tells us something’s gone wrong in her world and we want to know what. She plays Freya, a single parent alarmed by the aforementioned abduction and concerned about her young son’s wellbeing. For reasons I won’t get into here, Freya is both inside and outside the cult’s world, giving her a unique position in the narrative.

In line with Pomare’s novel, the show’s writers (Cameron, McCredie and Osamah Sami) introduce a multi-timeline structure that sneaks up on you and delivers a twist. It is reminiscent of Sean Durkin’s excellent 2011 film Martha Marcy May Marlene, also about a cult, which featured breaks in time that feel more like coils of memory than flashbacks or flashforwards. Even some of the terminology is similar: women in Martha Marcy May Marlene described being drugged and raped by their leader as a “cleansing”; the titular Clearing is a process involving Adrienne feeding her followers/captives LSD.

Going by the first two episodes, The Clearing is nowhere near as interesting as Durkin’s film, and the timeline shifts have a distancing effect. Walker (whose credits include Lambs of God, a superior cultish drama) and Gracie Otto (whose oeuvre includes episodes of Heartbreak High and Bump) conjure a wet, gluggy, sticky look, the frame bathed in a contemplative blue tint. The show is moody and well-produced, but doesn’t have the atmospheric wow factor of The Gloaming, another recent Australian series that also crossed over into cultishness and religiosity.

  • The Clearing is available to stream worldwide on Disney+ and on Hulu in the US from 24 May