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'A Cry in the Dark' (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 11, 1988

In the autumn of the liberation movement, divas and their directors are relentlessly reexamining women's rights in matters sexual and maternal. The dockets are full of women on trial.

Meryl Streep teams with director Fred Schepisi for "A Cry in the Dark," a compelling account of the media witch hunt and subsequent trial of Lindy Chamberlain, an Australian mother accused of murdering her 9-week-old daughter Azaria. Based on the case history "Evil Angels" by John Bryson, the movie takes TV and the tabloid press to task for what became a miscarriage of justice.

Though many Australians still scoff, Schepisi and Streep accept Chamberlain's claim that a dingo stole her baby while she, her two sons and her husband Michael (Sam Neill) were camping. The filmmakers argue that the Chamberlains were vilified because she had an image problem. Plain and pious and without charisma, Lindy just didn't look like a grieving mother to Australia's Inquiring Minds and couch potatoes.

Streep, with her hair black and chopped short, looks appropriately like Joan of Arc. For Lindy is a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, and her religious beliefs are suspect among narrow-minded Australians. When the press reports the rumor that Azaria means "sacrifice in the wilderness," the public is quick to believe the far-fetched story that Lindy, with the help of her pastor husband, decapitated Azaria with a small pair of scissors.

Although the Chamberlains were originally exonerated, the courts reluctantly reopen the case. Lindy is stoic throughout the grueling trial and, ignoring her attorneys' advice, refuses to play on the jury's sympathy. She hardly reacts to the gruesome description of how a dingo would go about devouring a small animal, peeling its skin away like an orange. Though seven months pregnant and clearly miserable, she gets no compassion from reporters, who hound her with helicopters. Though a private person who shares her thoughts only with God and her husband, on some self-destructive level she likes the attention.

Maternal heartbreak has brought the actress two Oscars -- as the mother who couldn't cope in "Kramer vs. Kramer" and the mother forced to sacrifice one child for the other in "Sophie's Choice." Both were meltingly vulnerable Madonnas who wept till their noses ran and felt tremendous guilt. But Lindy, believing the tragedy was God's will, doesn't show enough remorse in this vastly different portrait.

Streep -- yes, with another perfect accent -- brings her customary skillfulness to the part. It's not a showy performance, but the heroine's internal struggle seems to come from the actress' pores. Neill, who costarred with Streep in "Plenty," is quite good as a humble, bewildered sort who finally breaks under cross-examination.

Schepisi, an eclectic filmmaker whose last movie was "Roxanne," cowrote the at times unwieldy screenplay with Robert Caswell. He slams the yellow journalists and hanging-party hysterics but dilutes the drama with excessive cutaways to the slobbering press and the superstitious Aussies in their "The Dingo Is Innocent" T-shirts.

What he hasn't done is convince us beyond reasonable doubt that the Chamberlains are innocent. There is unexplained evidence -- why, for instance, was the baby's bloody sleeper found folded? And the Chamberlains are a creepy pair. In this era of child abuse, baby-snatchers and inadequate day care, there's something of a dark parable here. "A Cry in the Dark," like last week's "The Good Mother," isn't about apple pie. It's about culpability. These days, to Hollywood's way of thinking, the only perfect mothers are the daddies in "Three Men and a Baby."

A Cry in the Dark is rated PG-13 and contains material potentially disturbing to children

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