A Cry in the Dark

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
A Cry in the Dark Movie Poster Image
Mom is wrongly accused of murder; language, violence.
  • PG-13
  • 1988
  • 120 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

A lie goes 'round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on. Uninformed, ignorant, and baseless public opinions can sway authorities to do stupid and terrible things. True innocence is no protection against hysterical accusations.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lindy and Michael do their best to maintain their sanity while being wrongly accused of killing their baby.

Violence

A baby laid to rest in a tent goes missing. The mother sees a dingo run from the tent into the dark and assumes the dingo has taken the baby. The body is never found but the child's bloody clothes are eventually collected. Police, prosecutors, and so-called experts make the case against Michael and Lindy despite the lack of a body or any other evidence tying them to the baby's death.

Sex

A married man and woman kiss.

Language

"F--k," "s--t," "bastard," and "bitch."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink alcohol. Seventh Day Adventists warn against consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, sugary drinks, and junk food.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that A Cry in the Dark is based on the 1980s true story of a notorious chapter in Australian injustice when an innocent man and woman were convicted, against all logic, of murdering their baby amid a crowd of people vacationing in the Australian Outback. Much discussion revolves around wounds that might or might not have been inflicted on a baby by a dingo's teeth, and whether a dingo can carry a 10-pound baby, all speculative since no body was ever recovered. Bloody baby clothes are seen. Alternate murder scenarios are also mentioned. Local and national press seem to give this incident far more coverage than warranted, stirring passionate reaction from the public. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "bastard," and "bitch."

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What's the story?

A CRY IN THE DARK attempts to recreate the divisive near hysteria that overtook much of Australia in the 1980s over the innocence or guilt of a young Australian mother whose baby was taken by a dingo during a vacation in the Outback. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is a naive young Seventh Day Adventist pastor deeply devoted to wife Lindy (Meryl Streep), a bright, no-nonsense mother of their three kids. Along with many other families, they're camping on the cheap in the wilderness near Ayres Rock in the remote Outback. Dingoes (in the wild dog family) are boldly darting among the invading humans, grabbing food and unlucky mice as they find them. One night, as the families barbecue together, Lindy checks the tent where her nine-month-old is sleeping on the ground and, through the dark, sees a dingo run out, presumably with the baby in its mouth. The dingo gallops into the shadows and neither it nor the baby are ever seen again. The first inquest confirms this tragic story and the couple return home to get on with their lives. But throughout the country, in an era before cell phones, the internet, and 24-7-news delivery, Australians question Lindy's story. Fights break out, dinner parties are disrupted. The skepticism and ugliness prompt the police to take another look and so-called experts start reaching baseless conclusions about Lindy's guilt without any evidence or motive to speak of. Lindy is sentenced to prison and Michael is deemed her accomplice. The details of their judicial journey to acquittal is long and complex and not explained in great detail, but closing credits announce that the Chamberlains are eventually exonerated.

Is it any good?

A Cry in the Dark admirably recreates the mass hysteria that overtook Australia as citizens argued passionately about the role of a mother in her baby's death. Streep and Neill ably portray pawns in a media frenzy captured by Australian director Fred Schepisi. Intercut with the story are random debates, and even physical fights, among people at bars, on the street, during posh dinner parties, and on TV, echoing at times the chilling irrationality of the Salem witch trials. It almost explains how the phrase Lindy shouted that night in the Outback -- "A dingo took my baby!" -- became a punchline in Australia and among American comedians, as if someone stupid had made up the worst murder alibi ever.

Perhaps it's due to the complexity of this incredible yet true story that the film feels a bit murky at times. Late in the action a broken tent zipper is mentioned, for the first time explaining how an animal could possibly have entered the tent where seemingly responsible parents had left their newborn alone. And there's no explanation given for the Chamberlains' triumph over the judicial system as the film ends. We're simply told Lindy was released from prison and the couple was eventually exonerated.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about mass hysteria that rouses the pubic to loudly take sides about the Chamberlains' guilt. Why do you think people took such interest in this case across Australia and around the world?

  • Why do you think the masses reacted so strongly to the death?

  • Can you think of any other similarly controversial cases? 

Movie details

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