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Review: Welcome to Jury Service

Lane Sainty takes a look at a NSW government gem.

jury-review

jury-review

It’s an artistic work of great drama and suspense, filled with courtroom scenes and agonising pauses. The characters are easily relatable, but they don’t make you uncomfortable, and the legal challenges tossed up by the program are interesting to all. Since it was created in 2012, the viewership has been steady, with thousands of Australians tuning in each year.

I’m not talking about Crownies, Rake, or any other critically appraised Australian legal drama. Rather, I’m referring to Welcome to Jury Service, a twenty-minute-long informational video played to NSW citizens who have been summoned for jury duty, as they sit in district courts across the state and wait for their number to be called.

Welcome to Jury Service is, like many modern shows, difficult to assign a genre. Although the initial purpose of the film was to inform citizens about jury duty in order to cut mistrial costs, the questionable insertion of a dramatic narrative transforms Welcome to Jury Service into one of the slowest-burning and most delightfully awkward legal dramas in Australian history.

Whilst most shows might open with a scene from the police station, or even the crime itself, Welcome to Jury Service opts for a standard, and, frankly, tedious, shot of jurors entering the court. Our Friendly Host (who carries us through Welcome to Jury Service when, as frequently occurs, the narrative isn’t sufficiently strong to hold itself up) explains the concept of jury duty to the camera.

It’s an interesting choice of opening scene, and one that encapsulates the major flaw of Welcome to Jury Service: a constant indecision between information and narrative. The resulting film is coherent yet fundamentally confused; a tourist who knows where they want to be but can’t figure out how to get there.

The jurors enter a room, where a brisk looking woman with a plait asks if anybody would like to be excused from jury service. A man stands up, and explains why — he is busy at work as the head of his company’s IT department — but is abruptly shut down by the woman who asked for his input in the first place, revealing the entire scene as a clumsy attempt to introduce us to the classic character of Reluctant IT Guy. Another prospective juror, who goes on to become the star of Welcome to Jury Service in the role of Relatable Jury Foreperson, queries what remuneration jurors can hope to receive.

It’s a slow start, but the action ramps up as the jurors enter the courtroom. We’re introduced to yet another character: John Bates, who is accused of armed robbery. But instead of detailing the juicy crime, the highly original Welcome to Jury Service opts to take us through the many, many circumstances of when a juror should speak up about not being able to serve. It is, again, an interesting creative choice, but one that displays the bravery and creativity of the filmmakers, unwilling to bend to the usual sensationalist scenarios of the legal drama genre.

It’s during this excruciatingly slow-moving courtroom scene that we’re introduced to an unusual cinematographic element: individual, direct-to-camera monologues from various characters, done in the style of The Office or even, at times, the Big Brother diary room. However, the attempted pastiche fails to capture the humour or insight often associated with the technique. Instead, in Welcome to Jury Service the interviews are plagued by slow legalese and jarring jump cuts that zoom in and out on the judge’s face.

The best performance of Welcome to Jury Service is undoubtedly that of Relatable Jury Foreperson, who strikes a perfect balance between willing and resigned. Less impressive is the performance from District Court Judge Penny Hock, whose awkward acting can probably be excused by the fact that she is not, in fact, an actual actor.

One of Hock’s most memorable lines is delivered to Relatable Jury Foreperson after she brings up a potential conflict, which is quickly dismissed. Hock then says, “But thank you for bringing that to my attention. It is precisely the sort of matter that should be clarified before the trial begins.” Although spoken clearly — a low bar to begin with — the line is a little too laboured to be a realistic part of the courtroom scene, and Welcome to Jury Service makes the same old mistake of combining too little drama with too much direction.

The film adopts a distinctly hostile vibe during the scene in which various members of the jury are challenged, a moment uncomfortably reminiscent of the Tribal Council meetings in Survivor. The robotic judge’s assistant reads out juror numbers one by one, as the respective lawyers for the Crown and the accused respond with “challenge”. Inexplicably, each lawyer has a look of faint disgust on their face as they veto the jurors, an aspect of the scene that directly contradicts the earlier assurances of Friendly Host that “there’s certainly no reason to feel embarrassed or offended” should you be challenged as a juror.

Welcome to Jury Service reaches a dramatic crescendo as Relatable Jury Foreperson rises to give the verdict. In a bold deviation from the usual form, the screen fades to black on a shot of the nervous-looking accused before the words “guilty” or “not guilty” are uttered. He, along with the riveted audience, is left hanging, with no sequel in sight.

Is John Bates acquitted of his crime, or convicted of bank robbery? It’s a great flaw of Welcome to Jury Service that we never find out. That is not to say that all films should end conclusively— for instance, in Inception, the ambiguous ending is used to great dramatic effect. However, the plot in Welcome to Jury Service sorely lacks the complexity of the Inception narrative, and as a result, the use of the cliff-hanger is simply disappointing.

The fade to black reopens into an interview with Reluctant IT Guy and Relatable Jury Foreperson. In a highly unbelievable plot twist, Reluctant IT Guy actually had the time of his life doing jury duty. “It’s been quite an experience,” he says. “I feel that I’m not just an observer of the community, I am part of it. I have played my part.”

Welcome to Jury Service is a reasonably enjoyable, yet heavily flawed, addition to the Australian legal drama television scene. The unlikely pairing of drama and bureaucracy results in a surprisingly coherent, if only marginally compelling, narrative that is as informative as it is awkward. Sure to be screening in a district court near you, mere inclusion on the electoral roll will mean you’ll be forced to view this cultural gem at some point in your life — a civic duty to look forward to.