The lush, sprawling and compulsively watchable Australian TV series A Place to Call Home, whose fourth season begins streaming on Acorn.tv in the U.S. on Thursday, has been tagged a Down Under Downton Abbey.
Yes, it’s set in a picturesque past and locale — in this case the ’50s in a rural town near Sydney — and it focuses on a rich, fractious family afflicted with as much drama as wealth.
But Home, which creator Bevan Lee has said is influenced by film director Douglas Sirk’s high-toned 1950s melodramas like All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, diverges in important ways.
One of those is the main character of nurse Sarah Adams, an Australian Catholic woman who left for Europe before World War II, fell in love with a Jewish man, converted to Judaism, fought in the Resistance, and subsequently was imprisoned at the Ravensbruck concentration camp.
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Believing her husband to have died, Sarah returns to Australia a shattered woman in many ways and finds herself in the orbit of the wealthy and proudly Protestant Bligh family, including patriarch and widower George with whom she falls in love.
Along with the town’s only Jewish family, the Goldbergs, Adams maintains her faith in the face of both ignorance and outright hostility.
Having Judaism play such a central role in a series sets A Place to Call Home apart from most American and Australian television, especially one with elements of soap opera as this one does. And it’s something that has resonated with some Jewish viewers.
It has a fervent following in Israel and Marta Dusseldorp, the actress who plays Sarah Adams, says she’s often overwhelmed by the emotional response from some Jewish viewers.
“I love how Israel has embraced it and I’ve had lots of messages from them. When I speak in America, they pick it up, too,” said Dusseldorp, who’s not Jewish, in a phone interview from Washington D.C. “It’s important to show that culture and that history … They say that ‘You have represented us in such a delicate and truthful way.’
“It’s often quite emotional when they see me in the supermarket. I’ve had women cry and hold me and say ‘Thank you. You’ve reminded me of my grandmother’ or ‘I lost my whole family,’ ” she said. “My daughters sometimes will say, ‘Is that woman OK, mom?’ [I say] ‘Yes, darling. I think she’s happy actually and appreciative.’ ”
Dusseldorp, who says she listened to many of the Shoah interviews of Holocaust survivors to help her understand Sarah, says she has grown to love the rituals that help define the character.
“It’s the thing that connects her to her husband,” she said. “I love those scenes. I love the Hebrew prayers. I love speaking Hebrew. I love bringing that into my life and it’s an important part for me that she has this private place that she goes to.”
Adams’ Judaism, and the furor it ignites within the Blighs’ Anglophilic social circle, is emblematic of other societal changes that were beginning to wash over mid-century, post-war Australia.
The series addresses this with the presence of the Italian immigrant Poletti family, visiting Japanese businessmen who want commercial ties to Australia even though their government bombed Australia in WWII, and the adult Bligh son, James, who is so ashamed and horrified of his homosexuality that he volunteers for electro-shock therapy.
In future seasons, Dusseldorp expects the show will deal with Aboriginal issues.
“Downton Abbey did an extraordinary job of satisfying its world and that’s so great,” Dusseldorp said. “It’s a little different [here]. We don’t do the upstairs, downstairs.
“And we are delving into some quite difficult taboos that still need addressing … It’s quite Australian-centric but it’s less about classes because we don’t really have that in Australia.”
Yet, even though the series is unapologetically Australian, it covers themes that are universal.
In the U.S., where the show has also shown on various PBS stations including KERA/Channel 13 in Dallas-Fort Worth, the show has been generally well-received with the Wall Street Journal calling it “a captivatingly filmed, deeply romantic drama of immense intelligence distinguished by a uniformly superb cast.”
“I love that the biggest country is embracing it the way that it is. Visiting [here], it’s been an absolute joy to see it from the ground rather than just hearing about it in Australia,” she said, noting that maybe Americans see a bit of themselves.
“There’s a shared history especially with the Holocaust and the post-war [period]. We all went through that together.”
But the show almost didn’t make it this far. An Australian over-the-air network canceled the series following its second season but, after an outcry from fans, it was revived for two more seasons on an Australian subscription TV channel.
Though Dusseldorp, 43, is not widely known in the U.S., she’s a certifiable star in Australia. (Two other Aussie series in which she stars, Janet King and Jack Irish with Guy Pearce, are also available in the U.S. through Acorn.)
But she has her eye on working on this side of the equator.
“As soon as I’m available I’m going to come over,” she said. “I have representation now and that’s thanks to Acorn and public broadcasting picking up the show.
“Now, they have less work to do because there’s a little bit of an idea who I am,” she said. “I would love to open the gates more and see what else is out there.”
A Place to Call Home
Season 4 begins streaming Thursday at Acorn.tv. The first three seasons are also available.