The baby of a Seventh Day Adventist Australian couple disappears, feared killed, in the Bush. The couple maintain that a dingo (wild Aussie dog) did the deed, but they were soon put on trial not only by the courts but the media and general public of Australia as well.
The bizarre story of the infamous dingo baby trial comes to the screen with Meryl Streep and Sam Neill as the religious couple, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain accused of killing their own child.
As soon as the story broke at the start of the '80s, the parents became the subject of public suspicion and innuendo. Both members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, it was rumoured that they were part of a bizarre religious cult: their child's name, Azaria, was said to mean "sacrifice to the wilderness" - something that was simply untrue. A coroner's inquiry cleared them of all blame and it was not until two years later that the Northern Territory Police succeeded in bringing the case to trial. Lindy was charged with murder, her husband an accessory after the fact.
With much of the action in the film confined to the courtroom, the emphasis is firmly on the nuances of dialogue and the strength of the performances, which must flesh out the human drama while doing justice to the complex legal arguments. Schepisi's and Robert Caswell's economical script wisely focuses on the crucial confrontations, with the barbed wit of Ian Baker's smoothly manipulative prosecutor adding an extra edge to the courtroom cut and thrust.
Equally effective though are the cut away scenes in which ordinary Australians discuss the case in bars, at barbecues, over dinner. Not only do these provide a running commentary on the court case and surrounding media hype they also reveal the diversity of opinion and depth of feeling which the case generated.
Regrettably the film - like the book upon which it is based, Evil Angels by John Bryson - treats the Chamberlains' innocence as a given, something which tends to iron out any ambiguities and reduce the dramatic tension. At no point in the film are we able to doubt the couple's integrity or even come close to understanding why most of Australia judged them guilty so readily. Still less can we give credence to the tasteless T-shirts which read simply "the Dingo is innocent".
Occasional misgivings about Streep's accent aside the powerful performances and sharp script augment this revealing human drama.