The film was released less than two months after the Chamberlains were exonerated by the Northern Territory Court of Appeals of all charges filed against them.
Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill), his wife Lindy (Meryl Streep), their two sons, and their nine-week-old daughter Azaria are on a camping holiday trip in the Outback. With the baby sleeping in their tent, the family is enjoying a barbecue with their fellow campers when a cry is heard. Lindy returns to the tent to check on Azaria and is certain she sees a dingo with something in its mouth running off as she approaches. When she discovers the infant is missing, everyone joins forces to search for her, without success. It is assumed what Lindy saw was the animal carrying off the child, and a subsequent inquest rules her account of events is true.
The tide of public opinion soon turns against the Chamberlains. For many, Lindy seems too stoic, too cold-hearted, and too accepting of the disaster that has befallen her. Gossip about her begins to swell and soon is accepted as statements of fact. The couple's beliefs are not widely practised in the country, and when the media report a rumour that the name Azaria means "sacrifice in the wilderness" (when in fact it means "blessed of God"), the public is quick to believe they decapitated their baby with a pair of scissors as part of a bizarre religious rite. Law-enforcement officials find new witnesses, forensics experts, and circumstantial evidence—including a small wooden coffin Michael uses as a receptacle for his parishioners' packs of un-smoked cigarettes—and reopen the investigation, eventually charging Lindy with murder. Seven months pregnant, she ignores her attorneys' advice to play on the jury's sympathy and appears emotionless on the stand, convincing onlookers she is guilty of the crime of which she is accused. As the trial progresses, Michael's faith in his religion and his belief in his wife disintegrate, and he stumbles through his testimony, suggesting he is concealing the truth. In October 1982, Lindy is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour, while Michael is found guilty as an accessory and given an 18-month suspended sentence.
More than three years later, while searching for the body of an English tourist who fell from Uluru, police discover a small item of clothing that is identified as the jacket Lindy had insisted Azaria was wearing over her jumpsuit, which had been recovered early in the investigation. She is immediately released from prison, the case is reopened and all convictions against the Chamberlains overturned.Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain
Sam Neill as Michael Chamberlain
Bruce Myles as Ian Barker, Q.C.
Neil Fitzpatrick as John Phillips, Q.C.
Charles 'Bud' Tingwell as Justice James Muirhead
Maurie Fields as Justice Denis Barritt
Nick Tate as Det. Graeme Charlwood
Lewis Fitz-Gerald as Stuart Tipple
Dorothy Alison as Avis Murchison, Lindy's mother
John Bryson's book Evil Angels was published in 1985 and film rights were bought by Verity Lambert, who got the interest of Meryl Streep. Robert Caswell wrote a script and Fred Schepisi agreed to direct. The movie was one of the most expensive and elaborate ever shot in Australia, with 350 speaking cast and 4,000 extras.
In his review in The New York Times, Vincent Canby said the film "has much of the manner of a television docudrama, ultimately being a rather comforting celebration of personal triumph over travails so dread and so particular that they have no truly disturbing, larger application. Yet A Cry in the Dark is better than that, mostly because of another stunning performance by Meryl Streep, who plays Lindy Chamberlain with the kind of virtuosity that seems to redefine the possibilities of screen acting ... Though Sam Neill is very good as Lindy Chamberlain's tormented husband, Miss Streep supplies the guts of the melodrama that are missing from the screenplay."
"Mr. Schepisi has chosen to present the terrible events in the outback in such a way that there's never any doubt in the audience's mind about what happened. The audience doesn't worry about the fate of the Chamberlains as much as it worries about the unconvincing ease with which justice is miscarried. Mr. Schepisi may have followed the facts of the case, but he has not made them comprehensible in terms of the film. The manner by which justice miscarries is the real subject of the movie. In this screenplay, however, it serves only as a pretext for a personal drama that remains chilly and distant ... As a result, the courtroom confrontations are so weakened that A Cry in the Dark becomes virtually a one-character movie. It's Mr. Schepisi's great good fortune that that one character is portrayed by the incomparable Meryl Streep."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times observed, "Schepisi is successful in indicting the court of public opinion, and his methodical (but absorbing) examination of the evidence helps us understand the state's circumstantial case. In the lead role, Streep is given a thankless assignment: to show us a woman who deliberately refused to allow insights into herself. She succeeds, and so, of course, there are times when we feel frustrated because we do not know what Lindy is thinking or feeling. We begin to dislike the character, and then we know how the Australian public felt. Streep's performance is risky, and masterful."
In the Washington Post, Rita Kempley said, "Streep – yes, with another perfect accent – brings her customary skillfulness to the part. It's not a showy performance, but the heroine's internal struggle seems to come from the actress' pores. Neill, who costarred with Streep in Plenty, is quite good as a humble, bewildered sort who finally breaks under cross-examination."
Variety made note of the "intimate, incredible detail in the classy, disturbing drama." In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten Top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. A Cry in the Dark was acknowledged as the ninth best film in the courtroom drama genre.
The line from the Lindy Chamberlain character, "the dingo took my baby", sometimes incorrectly quoted as "a dingo ate my baby", became part of pop culture after the release of the movie, appearing on such shows as Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Supernatural, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Lindy Chamberlain: "The dingo took my baby!" – Nominated
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
#9 Courtroom Drama Film
Evil Angels grossed A$3,006,964 at the box office in Australia. This was considered a disappointment considering the publicity and subject matter.