Biopics rarely succeed. Invariably, they are thinly veiled hagiographies designed to push an “official” and pared-back version of history, dulled by performances that are merely impersonations.
Thankfully, Paper Giants suffers no such problems. Ostensibly, it’s the parallel true stories of journalist Ita Buttrose, fledgling publisher Kerry Packer and the pioneering “women’s” magazine Cleo that came out of this unlikely partnership. But it’s the currents running beneath that narrative that give the show its pulse: the portrait of Australian society awakening after 23 years of conservative rule and complacency; the emergence of a middle-ground feminism that in the words of the on-screen Buttrose was “all for men as long as they know their place”; and the personal and professional compromises made by those forging these new-found freedoms.
Crucially, it’s a drama rich with conflict and complexity. Buttrose (Asher Keddie) editorialises about “women and our culture” and corrals her inner-circle of young, girl-power writers, while on the home-front juggling the old battle lines of gender roles, biology and parental responsibility. Even Kerry Packer (Rob Carlton) earns a modicum of sympathy as he tries to emerge from the shadows of his cruel and bullying father Sir Frank (Tony Barry) and reconciles his deeply formed views of men, women, filial obligations and business with the need to be accepted and loved.
The performances strive for emotional truth and credibility rather than mere mimicry, and director Daina Reid manages to bring considerable amounts of poignancy and humour to what could have easily been a join-the-dots social history. Tomorrow night’s concluding episode was not available for preview.
By Paul Kalina | 17 April 2011 — 12:00am
Feature image: Kerry Packer (Rob Carlton) and Ita Buttrose (Asher Keddie) in Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo.