“Do you want to grow up, Amy?” asks Miranda Otto’s character at one point in The Clearing. To someone unaware, that question might sound like a loving mother nurturing her daughter, but viewers of this new Hulu series know otherwise. In fact, they fear for young Amy’s safety. In the television adaptation of J.P. Pomare’s 2019 novel In the Clearing, matriarchal villain Adrienne Beaufort (Otto) condemns materialism and other societal iniquities, all the while having her goons abduct children off the streets. Beaufort—or, as she likes to be called, “Mummy”—believes in her heart that she is improving her young acolytes’ by “clearing” them of their sins. In truth, she is creating years worth of trauma that may never be fully healed.
The Clearing frequently alternates between the past and present in the first three episodes, so the audience will have to adjust to a nonlinear story format. In the past era, Beaufort’s cult was already in full swing when another child, Sara (Lily LaTorre), was taken in broad daylight and submitted to the first few stages of indoctrination. Teenage Amy (Julia Savage) was put in charge of Sara’s rearing, but at the same time, she started to question her own. Back in the present storyline, Teresa Palmer plays Freya, a single mother who is completely frazzled when she hears about a new kidnapping in the area. Now constantly looking over her shoulder, Freya fears the ghosts of her past are finally catching up to her.
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If The Clearing sounds familiar without even having seen the series, that is because the story is inspired by the real-life New Age cult called The Family. Among other wrongdoings, the group’s leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne illegally adopted fourteen children, including the biological kids of other Family members. These same children were alienated from society, brainwashed, and given psychiatric drugs. Once they reached adolescence, they underwent an LSD-fueled rite of passage called an “initiation.” Anne Hamilton-Byrne eventually died in 2019, and former and surviving Family members continue to share their experiences.
The Clearing is already unsettling enough all on its own, but knowing the story is based on real events will make it even more chilling. The children’s forced makeovers—severely cut bangs to go with platinum-blonde dye jobs—may seem more ostentatious than eerie. However they are not only true to life, they are an unavoidable reminder of the cult’s stranglehold. So far this is not an especially graphic series, but that does not make it any easier to watch. The writing, dynamics, and performances all leave a considerable sting. Writers Elise McCredie, Matt Cameron, and Osamah Sami know how to draw a crowd and keep them coming back for more.
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Much of Beaufort’s instructions and punishments are carried out by her lackeys. Kate Mulvany’s character Tamsin is particularly loathsome as the cruel and hungry disciplinarian who rules in Mummy’s absence, whereas Henrik (Erroll Shand) comes the closest to being a loving adult in these unfortunate children’s lives. Yet as soon as Miranda Otto does come on screen, she once again shows how adept she is with intimidating roles. The supreme leader rarely does her own dirty work, but Otto always finds a way to manifest Beaufort’s menace, be it with an unnerving smile or nonchalantly meting out whipping orders. As the conflicted Amy, Julia Savage appears and acts older than her years; it is a powerful performance that should not be overlooked. Finally, Teresa Palmer acts with her entire body; Freya flinches with every sound and movement around her, and viewers will be sympathetic.
So often does this series feel immeasurably uncomfortable, penetrating, and sad. It offers no levity to make the heaviest moments more tolerable. In addition, the viewers are habitually left to ponder the weight that trauma and guilt have on someone’s ability to love. The Clearing is by no means an undemanding watch, but based on these first three compelling episodes alone, it is well worth the effort.
The Clearing is by no means an undemanding watch, but based on these first three compelling episodes alone, it is well worth the effort.