Bingeworthy? “Lambs of God” surprises, startles and jolts — start to finish

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If only all limited series were as strange, surprising, literary and darkly delightful as “Lambs of God.” This Aussie-made tale of nuns, an intruder priest, crimes and history, ghosts and miracles is equal parts “The Beguiled” and “Agnes of God.”‘

And the entire enterprise, based on Marele Day’s novel, is passing strange, Gothic magical realism stirred to life by a top flight cast in the starkest of settings.

All my gripes about current trends in the genre, that these series start too slowly and dribble out the plot points and jolts to maximize the Time Spent Watching, are tossed aside in four brisk, grim, darkly-funny and even moving episodes now streaming on Topic.com.

Essie Davies of “The Babadook,” Jessica Barden of “Scarborough” and “Penny Dreadful,” and the great Ann Dowd (“Handmaid’s Tale,” “American Animals”) are three surviving Sisters of St. Agnes, nuns cloistered on an island off the British coast.

Their version of Catholicism is barely recognizable. They pray to their “Heavenly Mother.” Their rituals to “My queen, My mother” adhere to a calendar that includes “hair day” (a trimming), “sheering day” for the sheep, and when Sister Iphegenia (Davies) has a vision, “killing day.” That’s when Sister Margarita (Dowd) sings to a lamb they will kill for food and as a sacrifice.

They drink the dying lamb’s blood, as well.

They watch for newborn lambs that they decide are the reincarnation of this or that Sister who left this world. Novitiate Carla (Barden) is the most enthusiastic about this tradition.

It’s pretty clear that their disconnect from the world is years and years long, that they’ve drifted back towards paganism. The semi-ruined convent, accessible only at low tide, is primitive and ancient and we have plenty of time to wonder if this is some thread of Medieval Catholic history we’ve forgotten, or if these three have survived an Apocalypse.

That’s when the first jolt arrives. A man, dressed in black, curses his way through the brambles up from the beach. He is a priest, Father Ignatious (Sam Reid of “Belle” and ”
The Astronaut Wives Club”). He’s a little put out being here, and a lot put-out finding them here.

“Don’t TELL me you don’t have electricity,” he gripes, opening his flip phone. It’s 1999, and the Bishop’s secretary has shown up to look over a long-forgotten church property.

The series is about what the church wants with this place, what Father Ignatius tells them and hides from them, and what sort of drastic actions they take to preserve their “heretical” way of life.

It’s a “haunted island,” where visions of long-dead nuns appear to the Sisters. Will the rude and imperious Father Ignatius see them, mollify them and bring the trio into the (still) 20th century?

There are intrigues at the Mother Church, where the Bishop (John Bell) complains that they can ill afford “ANOTHER scandal.”

And there’s a man hunt, or priest hunt. Ignatius has a semi-estranged sister (Kate Mulvaney of “Hunters”) in AA, who wonders where her brother has got off to. Tracking the anal retentive sibling to his departure point, cussing out the lazy constable (Daniel Henshall) who is slow-off-the-mark on the missing-persons beat, may get us somewhere.

Or not.

The arrogant, aloof Ignatius isn’t just missing. He’s in peril. And his efforts to divide and conquer the trio to affect his escape may not be taken well.

As Ignatius suffers and the sisters have their visions, see ghosts and experience flashbacks telling us how they got there, “Lambs of God” grabs us by the tenterhooks, making us puzzle out what might come next.

The acting is stellar across the board, but Barden is the standout here. Carla is utterly naive to the ways of the world, gobsmacked that Father Ignatius smokes (“Dragon,” Sister Margarita cautions.) and can blow rings, that he has a gadget that makes music (1990s ringtones) and channels voices.

She sees her first male genitalia when Ignatius passes out from their “Stay at Home” herbal tea. A Biblical reference is all Carla can summon up for the sight.

“Baby Moses in the rushes!”

Dowd’s Margarita is the truest of the true believers, and the most menacing.

“I can SMELL your deceit, Ignatius!”

There’s violence and intrigue, sex, sacrilege and singing in Latin in this tight and tense melodramatic thriller. The New South Wales settings nicely substitute for the Cornish coast, the supernatural touches often have down-to-Earth origins.

And the surprises never cease, making this that rare “limited run” mini-series that delivers big moments in every episode, keeps us guessing and keeps us watching without the teasing and padding-out too many streaming shows go for these days.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, sex and profanity

Cast: Essie Davies, Jessica Barden, Sam Reid Kate Mulvany and Ann Dowd.

Credits: Created and scripted by Sarah Lambert, based on the novel by Marele Day. A Topic.com release.

Running time: Four episodes @54 minutes each.

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