There is a moment in The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, the seven-part Prime series adapted from Australian author Holly Ringland’s bestselling novel, where actor Asher Keddie moves her head an almost imperceptible distance to watch a family steeped in fear.
Her character, Sally Morgan, a librarian in an east coast Australian town, is sitting in her police officer husband’s car. She knows not all is well in the nearby house beside the cane fields where Clem Hart, his pregnant wife Agnes and their nine-year-old daughter, Alice, live.
The glance is tiny but momentous. It’s an early harbinger of the way the series approaches Ringland’s powerful tale of secrets, silence, cycles of abuse and the healing powers of books and nature.
“It’s a subtle seed about what’s to come.” Keddie says. “It was shot early in the piece and wasn’t necessarily scripted. It really happened on the day.
“It came from asking, ‘How do we shape this? How do we not give away what’s to come? How do we plant the seeds that there is fear and a need to confront something in my character’s life?’
“It was about how Sally is going to play a part in this bigger story without sort of knocking it over the head.”
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, a story of dark and light, tyranny and beauty, spans decades. It focuses on the life of Alice, played by Alyla Browne in childhood and Alycia Debnam-Carey as a young adult, who survives a mysterious fire that takes her parents’ lives.
She goes to live with her paternal grandmother, June, played by Sigourney Weaver, at Thornfield, a native flower farm where Alice is introduced to the Thornfield language of flowers.
It’s also about the women who live at the farm, the “flowers” and family June protects, and the way Morgan’s hidden connection to Alice changes over years.
Keddie, winner of seven Logies and known for starring roles in shows ranging from Offspring to Paper Giants, Hawke and Nine Perfect Strangers, says the series, which is directed by Glendyn Ivin (The Cry) and co-written by Kirsten Fisher, Kim Wilson and Sarah Lambert, needed a finely tuned approach.
“We focused so keenly on every single moment that played out because there’s a thriller element in it as well,” she says. “When you’re telling a story like this you’ve got to know where you’ve come from, where you’re at in that moment, how you’re being affected, how you need to affect the audience, and then where you’re going.
“It was challenging. But it was a great way to be involved in a story that’s as dense as this.”
It was also an opportunity to work with a star-studded cast. From Leah Purcell as June’s partner, Twig, to Alexander England as Morgan’s partner, John, Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Agnes, Debnam-Carey as the older Alice, and, of course, Hollywood acting royalty Sigourney Weaver.
“I worked a lot with everybody and particularly Alex England who is just wonderful as John in dealing with the conflict that arises in our lives and our marriage. But, I mean, what a privilege to work with Sigourney. She’s incredible in this and in everything. Leah as well. And I loved working with Alyla Browne. She is just extraordinary.”
When The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart was published in 2018 it was Australian author Holly Ringland’s debut novel. A global bestseller, with rights sold to 30 territories including Britain, Canada, Russia, Japan and France, it won the Australian Book Industry Award General Fiction Book of the Year in 2019.
It is not autobiographical, but elements reflect Ringland’s life. The book and TV adaptation are set in sugar cane fields, in a coastal town, in a native flower farm and in a national park in the Northern Territory.
Ringland’s connection to Australian native flowers was first stirred in childhood in her mother and grandmother’s gardens on the south-east Queensland coast, near the beach.
In later years Ringland worked as a media officer at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory, which inspires Alice’s time working as a national park ranger.
Ringland’s language of native flowers and plants mark chapters in her novel. Chapter one is fire orchid, meaning “desire to possess”. Others include flannel flowers meaning “what is lost is found”, foxtails meaning “blood of my blood” and Sturt’s desert peas meaning “Have courage, take heart”.
Each is evocatively realised on-screen as real flowers to herald episode and plot points.
After reading Ringland’s novel, Keddie knew it should be transferred to the screen. When her agent mentioned an adaptation was being considered she leapt at the chance.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, this was the only project I’ve ever put my hand up for,” she says. “It was instinctive and I’m so glad that I did”.
Her character, Sally Morgan, who appears towards the end of the book, was developed by Lambert into a much larger role.
“That was really an added bonus for me,” Keddie says. “I wouldn’t have minded if it was a small role. I just wanted to be involved in the production.
“Sally is warm and intuitive. She feels comfortable in her own skin and with her life but there are her own secrets. There’s so many secrets in this show.
“Hers have been suppressed for many years.
“It’s about her healing as much as the ‘flowers’ that are in the show. There’s a very big and healing journey for Sally as a character.”
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart deals with domestic violence and the lingering trauma it brings to people’s lives. Ringland has spoken about her experience of living with male-perpetrated violence. For Alice Hart, it starts in childhood and returns as an adult.
In the book and series it is a subject handled with honesty and compassion. “It’s confronting for everybody whether it’s personally affected people or not,” Keddie says. “It covers so many themes that we all find acute and visceral and difficult to talk about.
“The drama, seeing it, helps us to access that more and opens up conversation, which is, of course, one of the best things about drama. That’s why we do it.”
Following the characters in The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, watching their story play out against dramatic Australian landscapes, also underlines Ringland’s aim to “reform the experience of the traumatic memory”. In the words of author Brene Brown, owning your story rather than it owning you.
“It’s acknowledging that it happened,” Keddie says. “Acknowledging that there is the possibility to heal from trauma and making a commitment to it. That life can move in a different direction. And then, open up.”
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart screens on Prime from Friday, August 4.
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