By Peter Travers
November 14, 1988 12:00 PM

When the wags are done having sport with Meryl Streep’s new accent—Australian has joined a repertoire that includes Southern (The Seduction of Joe Tynan), British (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Polish (Sophie’s Choice) and Danish (Out of Africa)—her gritty, galvanizing performance should win the attention it deserves. Streep uses an Aussie twang and a black wig to achieve an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Lindy Chamberlain, a woman convicted in 1982 of murdering her 9-week-old daughter, Azaria. Streep, at her bold and brilliant best, gets inside the skin of a much maligned character. Lindy, mother of three and wife of a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, claimed that a dingo (a wild scavenger dog resembling the coyote) had carried off her baby from a vacation campsite. But religious prejudice, dubious forensic evidence, public blood lust exacerbated by the press and Lindy’s outward coldness combined to send her to prison until the 1986 discovery of the baby’s torn jacket finally exonerated her. She had served three years of a life sentence for a crime that produced no body, no weapon and no motive. Her husband, Michael—Sam Neill, of TV’s Reilly: Ace of Spies, in a deeply affecting performance—had been convicted as an accessory. But his 18-month sentence was suspended so he could care for the Chamberlain children, including a daughter, Kahlia, Lindy bore in jail. The Chamberlains are now suing the government for $1 million in damages. Australian director and co-screenwriter Fred Schepisi, working from John Bryson’s 1985 book Evil Angels, could have taken the usual TV-movie-of-the-week shortcuts to an audience’s heart by simplifying the evidence and sentimentalizing the characters. But the gifted Schepisi, a master of expressive filmmaking as shown by Roxanne, Plenty and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, deals with the truth head-on. No apology is made for Lindy’s public reserve. Her grief, like her faith, is her own—private and unshakable. No pat answer is offered to explain the appalling witch trial the Chamberlain case became. With devastating impact, a committed director and actress provoke us to confront the facts of a complex case. And squirm. (PG-13)