Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting Past Winners

Year Winner Judges' comments
2013

Dead Europe by Louise Fox

Labelled as ‘un-adaptable’ when first published, Louise Fox has done a masterful job distilling the essence of Christos Tsiolkas’ long and complex third novel, Dead Europe, into a trancelike and disturbing mystery while still remaining faithful to the original source material. By condensing two separate narratives, Fox has created a haunting tale of an unsuspecting, Greek-Australian man on a collision course with the past. While the reader of the book is told upfront about the family’s wartime secret, Fox hides this revelation, from the protagonist and the viewer, in a shadowy underworld of drug addicts, pimps, people smugglers and prostitutes in modern-day Europe. This infuses the screenplay with a creeping dread. When the full horror of the past is revealed, it delivers a sickening punch.

More than a mystery, Dead Europe has an ambition and boldness of reach that is groundbreaking for Australian cinematic writing. By paralleling the horrific plight of Jews during World War II with the exploitation of Europe’s refugees today, the screenplay takes a timely look at how the echoes of the continent’s brutal past still shape its troubled present. It leaves a searing, uncomfortable and indelible portrait of a soulless and decaying continent.

As an indelible portrait of a deeply troubled history, Dead Europe stands apart. A film adaptation is not just the book in pictures, it is the creation of a totally new work, relying on visuals and action as opposed to figurative language and inner thoughts, that has to stand on its own in a new medium. Louise Fox has created a compelling and psychologically thrilling screenplay from Tsiolkas’ novel that is still faithful to the ‘spirit’ of the book, yet commanding in its own right. This is testament to her unique vision and to a deep understanding of form. This is a script that reveals a profound connection to the unsettling horror and wonder of what it is to be human.

2012

Rake (Episode 1): R v Murray by Peter Duncan

Peter Duncan has created a remarkable character in Cleaver Greene: a barrister, highly skilled in the courtroom, whose opponents never know what sort of rabbit he'll pull out of the hat to defend his — usually guilty — clients. In the main his clients look like hopeless cases. Cleaver, you could say, is their court of last resort. He can be relied upon to find a different angle that nobody else would dream of, let alone put into practice. But in his private life he's totally unreliable. He's a womaniser — make that sex-addict — and a gambler, with ongoing gambling debts for which he's physically punished (and no hard feelings). He snorts cocaine, has a running battle with the Taxation Office, owes alimony to his ex-wife, and has a son who's at risk of following in his father's footsteps – sex-wise, at least. From the foregoing, you may suspect Cleaver is not the ideal role model as a dad.

In this introductory episode, Cleaver's main client is a respected academic charged with murder and cannibalism. The professor admits to the cannibalism but denies murder. He maintains the 'victim' committed suicide, and that the cannibalism was by mutual consent. Cleaver is able to prove the victim did indeed commit suicide, and as cannibalism is not illegal in NSW the professor has no case to answer. This is the sort of approach at which Cleaver excels – while at the same time deftly juggling the balls of his shambolic private life. The screenplay is well-constructed, fast-moving, witty and a convincing testament to the quirkiness of the law. Cleaver, of course, steals the show.

There are many shows involving the law on Australian television, most of them emanating from the United States of America. It's refreshing to see one that so cleverly explores the unique idiosyncrasies of our own legal system – especially with the maverick Cleaver Greene as our guide. Cleaver could fairly be described as a classic anti-hero. The title 'Rake' is also apt in at least two senses of the word: a dissolute person and an implement used for tidying up a mess. One wonders how long he can fend off the tax office, extricate himself from gambling debts, placate his ex-wife, and retain the interest of his young companion – who happens to be a prostitute. Despite his self-serving behaviour and lack of guilt, it's hard not to like Cleaver. He has panache. And if you were ever in contretemps with the law, he's the one you'd want in your corner.