Underbelly Under Review
April 11, 2008
What can I say about 9’s Underbelly? Best Australian TV show of the decade, so far, for a start. Unlikely to be out done. Channel 9’s Underbelly is the most significant piece of Televisual cinematic art to grace our tube’s since Blue Murder. Comparable to a hyper active season of The Soprano’s, it is a major classic series that depicts the 25 or so murders of the Melbourne gangland wars.
At the center of the series is Carl Williams character/ real life OG, played portly and excellently by Gyton Grantley. William’s is given an interesting character arc, starting as a lowly Moran driver and slowly moving into producing his own Ecstasy tablets and cornering the market by under selling the competition. Into Williams life comes Roberta, played with a bravora performance by Kat Stewart. She is a gutter mouth shrew who eggs Williams on to bigger crimes and higher times. Together they are the crazed heart of the show. A suburban Bonnie and Clyde. They are completely mythologized in the show. The real Carl and Roberta Williams say they were nothing like the pair, but it doesn’t matter too much. The on screen pair are classic gangster characters, reborn, Melbourne style late 90’s… in tracky daks and pushing prams, while planning hits.
I should say apart from a few small minor bad apples, the show is exceptionally well cast. Vince Colosimo was born to play Alphonse Gangitano and gives a great opening to the show. If only we could have seen more Vince, but as we all know the Gangitano murder sparked off the war, so he bows out early in his designer suits and tassled loafers. Les Hill and Callam Mulvey nail the Moran brothers… all old school gangster machismo and violence. They are the old power in Melbourne that Williams is out to overcome and then silence after they shoot him in the gut fatefully one afternoon. Kevin Harrington is truly superb as Lewis Moran, he looks and acts just like the real deal from news footage. As an aging gangster in over his head and torn apart by family tragedy, Harrington is excellent. Damian Walshe Howling is central also as Benji Veniaman, a hitman with divided loyalties. Kind of like a better looking Scott Ryan from The Magician, Benji is a major catalyst in the war with the Carlton crew. The Carlton crew are led (in the show!!) by what appears to be its Godfather Mick Gatto (another great thesp turn by Simon Westaway, capturing the Gatto mannerisms and front). Gatto is the mysterious man at the top of the Carlton tree. An old school gangster, with style and a peace maker, essentially. The violent war shocks him and he does his best to cool the heads of the younger hooligans. Westaway’s Gatto is a man of cool respect and one on one Violence only… in the Benji confrontation scene. He is the foil to Williams wild colonial E dealer. Side kick to Gatto is Mario Condello, spot on portrayed by Martin Sacks in probably his best role yet. Condello is a loan shark and money man forced into the big chair of the Carlton crew when Gatto is arrested for Benji’s shooting and on the run from William’s endless supply of hitmen. Throw in legend Gerard Kennedy as the ‘Munster’ Graham Kinniburgh, Alex Dimitriadis as Mr T (Apparently Victor Brincat), Ian Bliss as Mr L (again, apparently Alfonso Traglia), Kim Gyngel as the Maggot King/ Tattoed Scrote (character unknown and the reason the show is banned from Nine), Dan Wylie as ‘Mad’ Richard Mladenich, Frank Magree as hot dog victim Michael Marshall, Kestie Morassi is spunky and looking for rough trade as Zarah Garde Wilson and Marcus Graham (miscast) as Zarah’s love interest Lewis Caine, a relatively minor character (he should have had a Moran brother role), and you have a truly splendid and amazing ensemble.
Add to all this mayhem from the characters above the Keystone cops of The Purana task force. The best character is Steve Owen, who wants to bend the rules to catch these guys and stop the war and murders. Rodger Corser plays Owen as an edgy cop ready to go toe to toe (if anybody would let him) with William’s and crew. You wonder why he wasn’t allowed to? Indeed, the accusation of the Police sitting around and letting these crims bump themselves off seems somewhat validated in the show. Many scenes where the Police know a hit is happening but fail to swoop on suspects until after the alleged murder (due to some unbelievable technical difficulty) are shown here. Sort of making them accessories of sorts (by incompetence, generally) in the crimes they are trying to stop. Frankie Holden’s Detective Butterworth is a short breed eating ‘by the book’, discombobulated by events head of Purana and Caroline Craig’s Jacquie James, is the perfunctory female cop, ala Blue Heelers, narrator and moral compass. All in the all the cop characters are a little dull and slow the show down, but necessary sometimes to move the plot forward. As soon as the full of life, passion and power gangsters appear things always pick up, then back to the plodding cop procedurial. Don’t get me wrong the cops have some good moments… like the ending when they nab Williams, but they are out shone by the glamorous wild subjects… they are trying to pinch. The show is a singing endorsement for the vitality and life energy of the Underworld, perversely enough!
Its a damn shame it can’t be aired on 9 locally. The show does clearly tar the subjects portrayed as all guilty and how poor old Tony Mokbel will get a fair trial after this, I’ll never know. But he is not implicated in any murders and appears as a kind of early backer and pal of Williams.
The shows direction has been criticised by friends and while I agree it could have been more cutting edge… that could have made it Internationally brilliant, as good as The Soprano’s. The direction is competent and pretty good Oz TV work, moving the story ahead, superb casting as mentioned and lively use of cool Aussie music, etc.
I must say the show is actually meaningful. Has real content. It is profound in its portrayal of Williams as a young upstart good guy, who is slowly corrupted by ambition, his wife, drugs, legitimate threats on his own life and other issues. Even when he becomes a killer he still is a nice guy to friends and family, generous and caring with money, etc., this all makes the Williams character sympathetic. After he is shot in the park by Jason Moran, Williams appears to go a bit ‘postal’. He soon escalates the cycle of violence for which the real Williams is now serving his 35 years. But you can’t help feel bad for the Underbelly Williams. If he wanted to succeed and stay alive in his chosen profession, could he have acted otherwise? The journey of Williams in Underbelly is one of the more profound Australian tales in many a moon. It resonates, it mostly true from the base facts of the case. Underbelly is the perfect exhibit for leniency on Williams at at any future parole hearing, again perversely…
The whole Melbourne gang war seems to have been fought over the vastly lucrative E trade. While you must blame the individuals responsible, superstructure responsibility must lay with the Government. They say E’s are made in back yard labs and are unsafe. Well, ok, does that stop any pimply dork scoring at a rave? No. The clear answer is to legalize them, tax them, make them safe and at a strength people can handle. This gets rid of the whole black market and by default any need to kill each other over it. The old gangsters can run their illegal gambling outfits and other interests and everyone is happy. 30 people killed, just so some idiot at a Rave can drop a pill… is a price to big to pay. The War on Drugs is absurd. The way out?… reasoned legality. Leave hard drugs like smack illegal maybe, but a reasoned legalization of the likes of pot and E, makes a whole lot of sense. It also will stop people killing each other. Win/win as they say. In the meantime you can watch the bloodbath caused by this illegality, if your lucky enough to pick up a pirated DVD sold (probably) through the same networks of people who are the shows subject matter. How’s that for absurdism, G?