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“A Cry in the Dark” at 35: Remembering the Innocent

Like many subtle, serious explorations of the darker sides of humanity, Fred Schepisi’s ”Cry in the Dark,” though critically well-received upon its release, was a commercial leper.

Now, even the critics seem to have forgotten it: in various best-of-century movie polls, not only was ”A Cry in the Dark” ignored, but so also was any other film directed by Mr. Schepisi, whose intelligence and unshowy artistry have been evident from his auspicious beginnings in his native Australia (”The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” and ”The Devil’s Playground”) to his more recent forays into Hollywood (”Roxanne” and ”Six Degrees of Separation”).

But ”A Cry in the Dark” (1982; Warner Home Video DVD, 121 minutes, $19.98) is Mr. Schepisi’s masterpiece, a unique film in that it dares to treat everybody with equal honesty and frankness. Based on a true story that gnawed at the Australian psyche through much of the 1980’s, ”A Cry in the Dark” introduces us to Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, an ordinary couple who take their two young boys and newborn daughter on an overnight excursion to the imposing natural wonder called Ayers Rock.

After Lindy puts baby Azaria into a tent for the night, a commotion ensues, and they find, to their horror, that their daughter is gone, possibly taken by a dingo (a wild dog native to the outback). The rest of the movie chronicles the couple’s efforts to prove their innocence when a not-very-convincing case is presented against them for murder in the courts of law and of public opinion (including, incredibly, sympathy for dingos).

”A Cry in the Dark” would be a stunner if it only presented the facts of this extraordinary case: how the Chamberlains are ostracized for their ”strange” beliefs (they’re Seventh-day Adventists) and how the Australian judicial system blew up the most marginal evidence into hysterical accusations of infanticide. But Mr. Schepisi is too artful a filmmaker to create a mere docudrama.

The very first image — a swiftly moving camera hurtles over a ridge toward the Queensland town where the Chamberlains live — and, later on, similar shots of Ayers Rock, ingeniously link otherwise dissimilar circumstances like that imposing natural rock formation and the infant’s disappearance as ultimately ungraspable. The entire film is made up of short, rapid, often terse sequences that whisk viewers through the story; whether the Chamberlains are denying their guilt, or various segments of the populace are vehemently arguing for or (mostly) against them, or lawyers and policemen are doggedly tracking down every piece of information, however biased or questionable, ”A Cry in the Dark” becomes absorbing, as if it were at once an Agatha Christie mystery and a Shakespearean tragedy.

Of course, sublime acting also helps. Sam Neill, unerringly right as Michael, gives his finest screen performance, and he’s superbly coupled with Meryl Streep as Lindy. Ms. Streep, who would be nominated for a best-actress Oscar (as she has been this year for ”Music of the Heart”), offers a performance that is one of her most haunting. That she flawlessly nails the down-under accent is the least of it; hers is a formidable, tough yet always emotional portrayal that earns Lindy our admiration as well as our tears. When this flawed, very human couple finally allow the ugliness of their situation to tear at the fabric of their marriage, it’s one of the saddest moments ever committed to celluloid.

”A Cry in the Dark” works wonders on so many levels — as a mature exploration of how religion helps keep some families together, as a prescient reminder of how innocent victims can be destroyed by media bias, public prejudice and judicial carelessness, as a demonstration of the inconceivable power of nature — that it’s shameful such a modern classic has been virtually forgotten. Until now.

Warner Home Video’s DVD release, in a breathtaking wide-screen transfer with Dolby surround stereo sound, allows Ian Baker’s expert photography, Jill Bilcock’s razor-sharp editing and Bruce Smeaton’s effective score to retain their mastery. None of the usual DVD bonuses are needed: a movie this profound can speak for itself, and it does. As Mr. Schepisi freeze-frames on one final, unforgettable image, Michael simply and eloquently speaks the underlying theme of ”A Cry in the Dark”: ”I don’t think a lot of people realize how important innocence is to innocent people.”