Okay, so this isn’t actually a ‘movie’ as such. ‘Mary Bryant’ was actually a two part mini-series, aired on TV in 2005.
It tells the incredible story of young woman Mary, who steals a bonnet and some money from a rich woman in order to feed her starving family. Captured, she narrowly escapes the death sentence and is instead shipped off on the first fleet of convicts to New South Wales, where the British are building a colony.
Desperate and pregnant, she seeks the help of Lieutenant Ralph Clarke, tidying his cabin in return for decent clothes and a place to sleep. However, once discovering her pregnancy and becoming the target of malicious gossip from convicts and fellow soldiers alike, he dumps her back into the undercarriage of the ship.
In the damp, crowded conditions of the ship, Mary gives birth to baby Charlotte, meanwhile falling in love with fellow convict Will Bryant. Once reaching Botany Bay, they marry, while being kept under the close watch of Clarke, who has irrevocably fallen in love with Mary.
Once establishing a rocky but content equilibrium with her little family and new baby Emanuel, Mary becomes increasingly worried about the spreading famine and illness in the colony. Deciding that she won’t stay to watch her children starve, her and Will band together with a group of other convicts and hatch a careful escape plan which involves stealing supplies, and the only good boat.
While she keeps herself and children fed and safe in return for sleeping with Clarke, Will and the others ready themselves for departure and they narrowly escape together. A lot of the film tracks their harrowing progress across 3000 miles of open water, and demonstrates the difficulty in not only surviving the sea, but each other.
Aiming for Timore where they plan to don new identities and talk themselves a passage back to England, the journey becomes even more difficult as they are followed by Clarke and his band of soldiers, intent on not only justice but retrieving the woman Clarke loves.
It’s such a shame that this amazing series is so little known, as it holds such a strong emotional value and offers a true insight into the hardships and cruelty of the Botany Bay colonies.
With the exception of O’Loughlin, Davenport and Sam Neill, the cast are all almost unheard of prior to this, and sadly haven’t been in much after. Romola Garai is astonishingly brilliant as the brave and courageous Mary, who is now famous for being one of the bravest women in history.
Not only is this film covered in good performances, it’s surprisingly well made for a TV movie. Okay, during the whipping scene her back isn’t so much ‘whipped’ but streaked with red paint, and there’s a noticeable error with one of Neill’s lines – “By the power invested in me” rather than “vested in me,” but these are small errors for such a long movie. With a total running time of 480 minutes, this is not a film to be watched lightly.
This film is so visually beautiful though, that these small errors don’t even matter. It’s hard to believe that these are sets at all – and although I’m struggling to find information, I’d hazard a guess that it is genuinely filmed on location, or at least close enough. Botany Bay is a barren haze of yellows and browns, giving a feeling of complete desolation and danger. It doesn’t take a lot to believe that no crops would grow there, but it’s still completely and utterly beautiful.
By contrast, Timor is a rich mixture of greens and reds, hydrating the whole film. Because of the massive amount of effort and attention to detail in this film, we really do travel with Mary and the gang on their harrowing journey, making this a really emotional ride.
When they’re thirsty, I have to remind myself that I have a glass of water sitting on my bedside table next to me. When they’re in the crowded and squalor conditions in the slave-ship, I have to take a look around my room to check how spacious it is and that it doesn’t actually smell of poo and sick. This film carries you with it, sucking you in entirely.
Due to this, when the film starts getting really difficult in the second half, we feel every single bump along the way. I can honestly say that I’ve never cried so much at a film in my life than I did at this. (Not even Marley and Me!) It’s not just the running time that make this a harrowing watch, and it doesn’t pick you back up before the end either.
‘Mary Bryant’ doesn’t pull any punches, and it certainly makes you realise how lucky you are. As if all this isn’t bad enough, this is a true story.
The thing that makes this so hard is that there isn’t a bad guy. It’s just how things were back then. You did something bad, you were either hung or transported. 17 year old Mary did something bad to feed her family, and she suffered the consequences. For a while, while Clarke is chasing them it feels like we should hate him. However, one moving scene changes that when he tracks Mary down, and holding a gun to her head reveals the extent he loves her.
After she once more tries to use her charm to get him to help her, he finally see’s through it and says: “You felt nothing for me!” and then quietly: “You don’t even know who I am.” Davenport, who is now famous for playing a similar role in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, delivers this line with such completely naked emotion that suddenly we realise that he hasn’t really done anything wrong this entire film. Quite a turning point in the movie, it becomes difficult to really place the blame on anyone.
If you failed to catch this in 2005, I urge you to make every effort to get hold of a copy. Flawless in it’s execution and completely ruthless in its emotional effect, ‘Mary Bryant’ is a difficult but rewarding ride that values freedom, love and above all, bravery.
Despite the long running time, this film starts quickly and doesn’t give you chance to catch your breath until the credits roll for the second time. Divided into two parts pulls the punch a little, but turn it back on for the ruthless second part and be ready to be completely amazed at one woman’s courage and bravery.
“You’ll run under blue skies along a proud cliff top with the waves crashing below. You will walk with strong, proud people, and no matter what happens to you, you will never give up. It’s in your blood.”