‘Boy Swallows Universe’: rambling, overlong drug-drenched crime melodrama has some solid stretches but ultimately crashes into a cluster of B-movie clichés

Feisty child: Felix Cameron in ‘Boy Swallows Universe’.

BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE ** (396 minutes; six hours, 36 minutes; seven episodes) MA
whole series review

While it features some strong sequences and a sturdy lead performance from young actor Felix Cameron, the much-anticipated screen adaptation of Trent Dalton’s best-selling 2018 coming-of-age novel unspools as a patchy, overlong crime melodrama that ultimately loses its bearings.

Set in lower-class suburban Brisbane in the early 1980s, Boy Swallows Universe tells of pre-pubescent teen Eli Bell (Cameron), a boy whose issues with school pale against the travails of his home life, which is comprehensively marinated in the drug trade. Not a good environment for a kid.

To wit: his mum Frances (Phoebe Tonkin) is a former smack addict who Eli fears might relapse; his dad Robert (Simon Baker) is long-absent and largely useless; mum’s new partner Lyle (Travis Fimmel) is a heroin pusher whose chirpy disposition suggests he’s selling black market sweets rather than smack.

For want of a decent father figure, Eli has an aging mentor, a bon mot-spouting ex-crim called Slim (Bryan Brown), who swears he was innocent of the killing he was jailed for.

The only consistently positive presence in Eli’s life is his slightly older brother Gus (Lee Tiger Halley), a voluntary mute who spends most of the series communicating by writing in the air, the words made visible to us in feathery, transient letters.

Despite the air of levity in Eli’s opening narration, the show features murder, kidnapping, loads of swearing, scenes of domestic violence and even a touch of torture perpetrated on a child. So, notwithstanding the kid-centred story, it’s not exactly family-friendly entertainment.

Indeed, it’s tough to argue that Boy Swallows Universe is actually all that entertaining; it might be sporadically engaging but it’s far-from-gripping, much of it feeling contrived.

There are too many instances where the show seems to be at war with itself, its discursive narrative resulting in grinding tonal gear shifts that go from realism to comedy to hard drama, pulpy action and schmaltz, with awkward dashes of magic realism.

The scattershot style and wildly erratic degrees of believability baked into Boy Swallows Universe make it difficult to fully invest in Eli’s journey.

Put bluntly, it’s all over the shop.

The prominent lapses in plausibility are hard to forgive. One involves Eli’s adventure with a jail visit – it’s laughably bad as opposed to funny. A lethal gang fight in a suburban driveway is so badly done it’s a mystery how it was supposed to work.

The fantasy elements, too, feel shoe-horned, especially the many hints of precognition. Only Eli’s visions of flying through space in a station wagon work, eventually fitting naturally into the story.

Still, Boy Swallows Universe boasts some strong stretches and solid performances, with Cameron – admirably holding up the first five episodes – Halley and Baker the stand outs.

Episode six is dramatically the strongest, taking the story four years on with the 17 year old Eli played by Zac Burgess. It’s good stuff as the brothers come within reach of getting their family life back to something approaching normal.

Unfortunately, this quality spike is negated by a movie-length final episode (77 minutes) in which Boy Swallows Universe degenerates into an unholy cluster of B-movie clichés.

Gosh, it’s awful, delivered complete with tabloid investigative reporters, corrupt cops, nasty corporate peeps and a boiler-plate baddie with a scar so deep it requires a prosthetic cover. He also appears impervious to injury.

Worst of all is the total absence of security guards and alarms in places where you’d reasonably expect them to be. This cliché is so old it should have been cremated long ago and its disheartening to see it alive and well here.

So dreadful is the finale it’s as though the makers were determined to invert the screen storytelling maxim – so sagely articulated by Brian Cox in Adaptation – about “wowing them in the end”.

Here the intent seems not to wow, but to lose them in the end.

At one point in the proceedings Eli even says: “This is f***ing insane.”

Close but no, Eli. It’s just silly. Very silly.

What accounts for the show’s shabbiness? Here’s a stab.

Three notable directors are credited: Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof; The Dressmaker); Kim Mordaunt (The Rocket; Bomb Harvest); and Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day ; The Man Who Invented Christmas).

Dare one suggest that, for a seven-episode show, having three directors could possibly have not been such a great idea? A case of too many cooks?

Might the series have felt more cohesive and of a piece had its cadences been guided by a single director?

Maybe. Just putting it out there.

The show also feels too long by about two episodes, with plenty of story sidebars and scene setting that go on too long, some feeling like they’re only there to accommodate all the period pop songs on the soundtrack.

If only Eli’s narration, introduced early on, had been properly sustained as a storytelling device to help make things punchier – and shorter.