Female murderers are one of the screen’s quietly unspoken taboos, a subject that seems to cut deeply and brutally into our pre-conceived notions about what women are, and what they are capable of. It’s far easier to simply view violence as a symptom of male aggression, insecurity, and depravity than it is to accept that it is occasionally a gender neutral act. Yes, men are often involved in the violent acts of violent women, but you can’t place all of the blame there.
The fascinating web series, Last Breath, strides boldly and directly into this philosophically fraught conversation. In this series of sub-six-minute episodes, we hear the final words of a female killer about to make her own exit, either via the noose or the decision of a sentencing judge. Comprising of nine separate, self-contained episodes, Last Breath is the work of Girls Act Good (GAG), an all-female ensemble of actors, writers, directors, producers and designers based in Melbourne. The aim of the production company is to provide a voice and platform to those whose stories usually go unheard and unnoticed, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of that than women behind bars.
Under the direction of Perri Cummings (a writer and actor on Neighbours, and the co-creator and star of the warmly received short film, Trench), Last Breath sees a member of GAG writing and performing a to-camera one-hander, and – in every instance – utterly disappearing into the character of woman driven and defined by violence. The performers are Hannah Davies, Lisa Dallinger, Shanon Kulupach, Kelley Kerr Young, Lee McClenaghan, Jennifer Monk, Emma Jo McKay, Eva Justine Torkkola, and Constance Washington, and their efforts are wonderfully in-your-face and staggering in their intensity. With no real props to speak of, and reliant only on the force of their physicality and the power of their words, they create a series of absorbing, blackly ominous character portraits. The performances are powerful and unadorned, with the wonderfully brooding music of Matthew Shaw providing the perfect accompaniment to the simple but striking on-screen images.
The episodes were inspired by notorious real life Australian killers such as Martha Needle (who poisoned her husband, three children and future brother-in-law, and was hanged in 1894 at the age of 30), Katherine Knight (who killed her boyfriend and then cooked him up in a stew…which she intended to serve to his children), Catherine Birnie (who murdered four women alongside her equally demented husband), Elizabeth Woolcock (who poisoned her husband, and remains the only woman ever executed in South Australia), Jean Lee (the last woman to be executed in Australia), Louisa Collins (a poisoner known as the “Borgia of Botany”) and Martha Rendell (the last woman to be hanged in Western Australia).
As well as directing, Perri Cummings also worked as a writing coach on each of the episodes. “If you think you have stories in your head and you want to get them out, find a way to get them out,” Cummings said of the creative process to Cinema Australia. “Because when you get them out, it’s like being a sculpture – the ideas are always terrible, but you need to get those terrible ideas out so you have something, and then you can chip away at it. And I think in knowing how to chip away and knowing how to get that really good stuff underneath, sometimes you need a little bit of guidance.”
The results are pithy and powerful, and often shocking when it comes to the raw immediacy of the dialogue. These women speak as you would imagine locked up female killers would speak, and no punches are pulled when it comes to profanity and rough-hewn vernacular. These women are reprehensible, but Last Breath ingeniously repels and captivates at the same time, digging under the surface to find a surprising empathy with its subjects.
The web series marks Girls Act Good, along with producing partners, F Word Films (“This has been a reminder that collaborating with like-minded, passionate and reliable creatives is the only way to go,” producer, Jennifer Monk, told Cinema Australia. “It’s great having another opinion in the production room that also supports women and women’s stories in the industry, even if they are dark”) as major talents to watch in the online drama space. Last Breath is a death trip with a difference…
Last Breath is playing now on the Girls Act Good YouTube channel. Subscribe to the channel to watch new episodes of Last Breath as they become available.