“The dingo took my baby!!!!” Or “The dingo ate my baby” as it’s better known now, even though that second line is never actually uttered in the movie. How often have we heard these phrases? When I was an intern at Phoenix Pictures in 2006, I asked one of the executives why his AOL screen name was thedingoatemybaby. “If you have to ask,” he said, “you don’t deserve to know the answer.”
Naturally I looked into the matter and discovered that the phrase stemmed from a real life tragedy that took place in Australia in August 1980. A nine-week-old girl, Azaria Chamberlain, was taken by a dingo near Ayers Rock and killed. Her mother Lindy was later wrongly convicted of murder, and she served three years in jail. She was finally found innocent when the baby’s jacket was found in a dingo den, and it wasn’t until June 12, 2012 (!) that the cause of Azaria’s death was officially listed as a dingo attack. It’s a sad event that unfortunately has turned into a funny one-liner over the years—even Nora Ephron cracked a joke about it at Meryl’s AFI Lifetime Achievement ceremony—but it fortunately also spawned a compelling 1988 film, A Cry in the Dark, re-uniting Meryl with her Plenty director Fred Schepisi and co-star Sam Neill.
Despite my love for Meryl, before starting this project there had been a few of her movies that I’d missed, and one was A Cry in the Dark (also released as the awkwardly titled Evil Angels in Australia). Therefore, it was thrill to finally check it out, the last of the films that Meryl received an Oscar nomination for that I hadn’t seen. Despite some slow stretches, and a few overlong court scenes, A Cry in the Dark is the most engaging of the four dramas Meryl made between 1985 and 1988, with a true-life story that offers sometimes more questions than it does answers. Director Schepisi’s matter-of-fact storytelling, which hindered the slowly-paced Plenty, works much better here, showing the ups and downs of two parents who not only have to deal with their loss of their young daughter, but untrue allegations made about them that ultimately land Lindy in prison.
At the start of the film, only smiles are to be had on the main characters’ faces. Lindy (Meryl) and her husband Michael (Neill) take a camping holiday in the Outback with their two young sons and their new baby girl. One night, the family is enjoying a barbecue, as the baby sleeps in the zipped-open tent. Lindy returns to the tent to see a dingo running out of it, with something in its mouth. When she discovers her baby girl missing, she screams the immortal line: “The dingo took my baby!” Everyone at the camp joins forces to search for the baby, to no success. Michael is a religious man, and that night he questions God’s intentions, asking why he would bestow onto them to gift of a daughter, only to snatch her away mere weeks later. As Lindy and Michael deal with their immense grief, the allegations begin: the story about the dingo is made-up, the last name Azaria means “sacrifice in the wilderness,” the parents decapitated their baby with a pair of scissors as part of a religious rite. After initially being discharged from any wrongdoing, Lindy is pulled back into an investigation about Azaria’s disappearance, and is eventually found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
A Cry in the Dark is maybe not as well shot as Out of Africa or has the attention to detail in the production design of Ironweed, but it is certainly the most riveting, easy, of these three films. Even though I was aware of the outcome of Lindy and Azaria’s story upon sitting down to watch this movie, it still had me in its grip for most of the running time. Sam Neill is always excellent, and it was a joy to see him and Meryl together in a second project. His part is just as complex as Meryl’s because he is playing a man totally committed to his religious faith, yet, like Mel Gibson’s character in Signs, a tragic accident occurs that makes him question what he believes. His commitment to his wife, even in the most trying of times, is also a refreshing change of pace, considering that their marriage, for dramatic purposes, could have been played more strained and contentious.
One of the main joys of watching a Meryl movie week after week is seeing how she will surprise me next. She’s so gifted at creating wholly original and three-dimensional characters on the screen (even in lesser material), and her performance as Lindy has to be considered one of her most astonishing. With her black bob of a haircut, she looks almost unrecognizable, and, even more impressive, her Australian accent is so spot-on that within minutes of the movie you naturally assume that’s how she talks, no questions asked. Meryl is famous for her accents, and she delivers one of the best in A Cry in the Dark. But going deeper than that, she hits so many notes with Lindy, playing hysterics, grief, anger, resentment. One of her best scenes comes toward the end, in her revealing court scene, when she doesn’t play on the jury’s sympathy about the loss of her baby girl, but instead appears emotionless on the stand, tired of all the allegations and the rumors and wanting nothing more than to get the trial over with and move on with her life. Courtroom scenes are so common in the movies, but Meryl manages to make this one a truly original and captivating moment.
A Cry in the Dark closed out a remarkable run in the 1980s of dramas that scored her a whopping six Oscar nominations, her last of which pitted her up against Glenn Close for a second time, ultimately losing to Jodie Foster for The Accused. She was also nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, and won the New York Film Critics Circle and Australian Film Institute awards for Best Actress. When the film was taken to the Cannes Film Festival in May 1989, not only was it nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or, but Meryl won the Best Actress award of the entire festival, six long months after A Cry in the Dark’s US release. By 1989, Meryl had proven her worth to audiences all over the world, so maybe it was Meryl herself who decided to give some other actresses a shot at the limelight, while she concentrated on a brand new genre few would have ever expected her to tackle—comedies!