Fires review – gripping six-part drama circling on Australia’s horrific black summer

Will the dust from the black summer bushfire season ever really settle? Literally yes, of course, but symbolically and emotionally this horrible chapter in Australian history will linger for a long time in difficult to define ways. For some, for instance, the events of the 2019-2020 bushfire season marked a new era of horrific anthropogenic climate change; for others it remains an open wound in their lives, oozing personal loss and trauma.

Several black summer docos are in the can (including Wild Australia: After the Fires, A Fire Inside and Chasing Asylum director Eva Orner’s Burning) but scripted productions can take us to places documentary cannot, using the dramatic properties of performance, narrative and subtext to pursue emotional truth.

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Thus: a six-part ABC TV anthology series titled Fires, co-created by Tony Ayres and Belinda Chayko (also the writer) and directed by Michael Rymer, Ana Kokkinos and Kim Mordaunt, helming two episodes apiece. Each story features different albeit occasionally overlapping characters, and is essentially self-contained but bound by a central theme and tone: a kind of cerebral, disaster prestige – more Chernobyl than Greenland, with a distinctively Australian feel.

There are shots you can imagine belonging to end-of-days Hollywood movies, including an aerial composition in episode three (directed by Mordaunt) capturing a traffic buildup on a remote road, with smoke-covered terrain lingering ominously in the distance, as if to say, it’s coming for them. This visually contextualises the situation confronting characters including recovering addict Joel (Mark Leonard Winter) who is coming down off methadone, and trying to persuade the family (Sachin Joab, Anna Lise Phillips and Emil Jayan) giving him a lift to Canberra that they should leave the main road and take a riskier route.

Key to this scene is a decision – like many in this series – that has potentially huge implications and is unquestionably the stuff of interesting drama. One (also explored in episode three) involves whether local residents of a town potentially in the path of a massive blaze should obey an evacuation order, or stay put and try to save their homes.

Twenty minutes in, a local resident (Anna Torv, recently in The Newsreader) explains to volunteer firefighters Mott (Hunter Page-Lochard) and Tash (Eliza Scanlen) that she will stay put; they are obviously trying to sway her while accepting that it’s her decision. This quietly gripping sequence belongs to an episode directed by Mordaunt with at times almost Hitchcockian flourish, most clearly in visions of birds as harbingers of doom.

In the above exchange, viewers are likely to side with Mott and Tash, having already experienced the fires up close with them in the first episode. A climactic stretch – almost certainly inspired by terrifying, real life footage that emerged from the black summer fires – captures them inside a fire truck moving through hell on earth, an eerily realistic sequence full of blazes and sparks and scaffolding of terrible intensity.

It’s the debut episode showstopper, inserted into a “one day in the life of” narrative emphasising that ordinary existence has been interrupted. Not one but two sequences show the principal pair frolicking around in a body of water, the second unnecessary because we get the point the first time: that an impending catastrophe will eclipse their idyllic experience and disrupt everything.

The most surprising part of this episode is how relaxed the pace is, especially given the show’s anthology format, which generally lends itself better to a snappier, more disciplined narrative style. The drifting, moody quality of Fires occasionally hits brief flat spots but comes together tonally very well, often with a climbing quality: a gradual terrible crescendo.

The second episode (directed by Kokkinos) is a heart-wrencher, with the best performances of the three episodes I’ve seen so far, and the meatiest characters. Dairy farmers Kath (Miranda Otto) and Duncan (Richard Roxburgh) return to their property post-fire, seeing charred cattle – some dead, others needing to be euthanised – and the rubble where their home once stood.

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They stay in the cottage of their son’s fiancé Brooke (Taylor Ferguson), where hot emotions simmer beneath the surface, initially dormant but ready to rise. Rise indeed they do, softly but painfully brought out by the performances, the string section of Cornel Wilczek’s score, and Bonnie Elliott’s cinematography, until eventually the emotions have overwhelmed everybody – leaving us, like the characters, in a state of tense, uncomfortable melancholia.

In this episode particularly, complex deep-seated conflict takes place in front of a background of environmental devastation. The literal apocalypse has ended – the fires turned to ash, rubble, ruin – but the personal and psychological one has just begun. More broadly, the series makes a compelling argument that the entire emphasis of disaster movies was wrong to begin with: that the potential for truly great drama lies less in the immediate impact of catastrophic events than in the aftermath.

• Fires is showing on ABCTV on Sunday nights at 8.40pm and is available to stream on ABC iView