Netflix's 'Boy Swallows Universe' Turns an Ace Brisbane Book Into an Ace Brisbane-Shot Streaming Series

Starring Simon Baker, Travis Fimmel, Phoebe Tonkin and Bryan Brown, this TV version of the beloved Australian novel gets everything right.
Sarah Ward
Published on January 11, 2024

A magical-realist coming-of-age tale, a clear-eyed family drama, a twisty crime and detective thriller, a time capsule of Brisbane in the 80s: since first hitting the page in 2018, Trent Dalton's Boy Swallows Universe has worn its happy flitting between different genres and tones, and constant seesawing from hope to heartbreak and back again, as confidently as readers have long envisaged Eli Bell's wide grin. That hopping and jumping, that refusal to be just one type of story and stick to a single mood, has always made sense on the page — and in the excellent seven-part Netflix adaptation that now brings Australia's fastest-selling debut novel ever to the screen from Thursday, January 11, it also couldn't feel more perfect. 

As played by the charmingly talented Felix Cameron (Penguin Bloom), Eli's smile is indeed big. As scripted by screenwriter John Collee (Hotel Mumbai), directed by Bharat Nalluri (The Man Who Invented Christmas) with Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker) and Kim Mordaunt (The Rocket), and with Dalton and Joel Edgerton (The Stranger) among the executive producers, the miniseries version of Boy Swallows Universe embraces its multitudes wholeheartedly. Like style, like substance: a semi-autobiographical novel penned by a writer and journalist who lived variations of plenty that he depicts, learned and accepted early that everyone has flaws, and patently has the imagination of someone who coped with life's hardships as a child by escaping into dreams of an existence more fanciful, Dalton's tome and every iteration that it inspires has to be many things in one bustling package. Its characters are, after all. 

Seeing people in general, parts of a city usually overlooked, and folks with complicated histories or who've made questionable choices — those forced in particular directions out of financial necessity, too — in more than just one fashion flutters at the centre of Boy Swallows Universe. In the Australian Book Industry Awards' 2019 Book of the Year, Literary Book of the Year and Audio Book of the Year, and now on streaming, Eli's nearest and dearest demand it. So does the enterprising Darra-dwelling 12-year-old boy who knows how to spy the best in those he loves, but remains well-aware of their struggles. His older brother Gus (Lee Tiger Halley, The Heights) hasn't spoken since they were younger, instead drawing messages in the sky with his finger, but is as fiercely protective as elder siblings get. Doting and dedicated mum Frankie (Phoebe Tonkin, Babylon) is a recovering heroin addict with a drug dealer for a partner. And Lyle Orlik (Travis Fimmel, Black Snow), that mullet-wearing stepfather, cares deeply about Eli and Gus — including when Eli convinces him to let him join his deliveries. 

Slim Halliday (Bryan Brown, Anyone But You), the boys' sometimes babysitter and frequent source of wisdom, endured a lengthy stretch in the infamous Boggo Road Gaol for a murder that he's adamant he didn't commit. He's at peace with doing that time, but he also broke out (and he's based on an IRL person, name and all). Eli and Gus' biological father Robert (Simon Baker, Limbo) is an alcoholic and agoraphobic bookworm more comfortable with novels than people, initially estranged from his sons when Boy Swallows Universe begins, yet devoted to them in his affections. And Eli himself is all precocious charisma and keen curiosity mixed with unflinching nerve, whether being picked on at school, standing up to criminal thugs, breaking into a prison or talking his way into a job. Unsurprisingly, that's a combination that lands him in as many jams as it gets him out of. 

In all takes so far (the stage in 2021 among them), Boy Swallows Universe follows Eli as Lyle's illicit profession has consequences, Frankie is incarcerated and Robert re-enters his sons' lives. There's a bouncy air to the TV series as it works through its plot, with Eli doing everything that he can to make sure his mum is okay and get to the bottom of a disappearance, as continues when the show jumps forward to find him as a 17-year-old (then played by Totally Completely Fine's Zac Burgess). Again, the approach and atmosphere apes Boy Swallows Universe's protagonist, who can rarely be anywhere fast enough. This is a tale of darkness and violence — of addiction, murder, bullies, trauma, drugs, lopped-off limbs, loss, domestic assault, gang wars, jail, PTSD and fiendish plans — while also a story about working towards the best even in what seems to be the most dire of circumstances. Of course Eli keeps leaping towards brighter possibilities, then being pulled back into the shit (sometimes literally). A simple journey towards better days, this isn't, however.

As its irrepressible central figure kicks around his neighbourhood, tags along with Lyle, writes letters to his prison penpal (Briggs, Get Krack!n), goes to school with a wannabe drug lord (Zachary Wan, Never Too Late) and endeavours to befriend The Courier-Mail's young star crime reporter (Sophie Wilde, Talk to Me), there's no shying away from the harsh realities surrounding Eli and almost everyone that he knows. Boy Swallows Universe doesn't revel in despair, though, but commits to seeing things as they are with no judgement — and zero traces of fatalistic certainty that nothing more will ever spring. That type of candour is as rare as spotting the areas of Brisbane that the narrative is set in on-screen. For locals, there's no mistaking that this is the River City, especially when there's no trace of Boggo Road, the Story Bridge or Brisbane City Hall in sight. Even as flying cars, red phones with mysterious voices on the line, eerie predictions and secret lairs factor into the plot, every second looks and feels lived in, turning an ace Brisbane book into an ace Brisbane-shot series.

Tenderness and diligence linger in Collee's handling of Dalton's tale, and in Nalluri, Moorhouse and Mordaunt's attentiveness as directors. That said, if their efforts weren't matched by stellar casting, Boy Swallows Universe could've started to unravel the moment that it kicks off with Lyle being dragged away by nefarious heavies. The main adult cast members are superb, specifically in delivering unvarnished explorations of complex characters with a plethora of clashing — and realistic, and relatable — traits. Fimmel conveys Lyle's relentless attempts to take care of his family with both love and wildness in his every move. Tonkin is as resolute as she is adoring, while never sanding away the knocks she keeps taking. Baker turns in his second exceptional performance in the space of the year, and Brown perfects the role of a no-nonsense yet supportive mentor that it instantly seems he was born to play.

Boy Swallows Universe's younger stars are equally as impressive. Expressive in their own ways — one in energy and movement, the other via quiet glances — Cameron and Halley know that they're the heart and soul of the show, and more than live up to the task. The former is missed when Eli ages up, but Burgess brings a deep-seated yearning to the part as someone who has spent his years approaching adulthood striving for so much that's constantly out of his grasp, despite still appreciating what he has. As with almost every detail seen and heard, that sense of absence when Eli gets older couldn't be more apt. This account of coping with day-to-day life at its most brutal and most fantastical doesn't only refuse to be just one thing, or stay with just one version of Eli, but wouldn't contemplate giving its audience anything other than the full emotional universe.

Check out the full trailer for Boy Swallows Universe below:

Boy Swallows Universe streams via Netflix from Thursday, January 11, 2024.

Images: courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

Published on January 11, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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