South African crime series Desert Rose delivers twists and thrills

By Stephen Aspeling28 July 2023

South African crime series Desert Rose delivers twists and thrills

Family politics can make almost any upcoming gathering seem as enticing as skipping through a minefield. Trying to mask emotions, navigate away from difficult conversations and steering clear of unresolved issues may not be your first choice when it comes to planning your weekend. However, it can make an excellent choice when it comes to living vicariously through a suspenseful and windswept family crime thriller series like Desert Rose, created by Rohan Dickson. 

Centred on the Greyling family, this pensive and well-crafted saga reveals that while you can’t choose who you’re related to by birth, sometimes family legacies cast a long shadow. Desert Rose is the fictional name of the Northern Cape town where this story takes place as a family reunite on their estate in the Namaqualand desert. Jumping 10 years back in time, the past catches up with the present as Freddy Greyling’s woeful tale unfolds before the father abandoned his family and disappeared, leaving a mountain of debt in his wake. 

Neil Sandilands as Freddy Greyling in Desert Rose on Showmax
Neil Sandilands is Freddy Greyling

Desert Rose is a curious and swirling multi-genre series that interweaves dark comedy, crime, romance, music and suspense. The broad ensemble, fractious community, unusual small town setting, moody music and hybrid mix of genres echoes Twin Peaks. While not as dark or quirky, there’s a strain of Nick Cave to the outback vibrations of this smouldering crime drama. It’s not quite as eerie or surreal as either of these influences, opting to ground itself and revel in its dust-land setting and wide open spaces. There’s a filmic quality to this series, thanks to its beautiful cinematography, rich overarching themes and epic feel. 

Swaying between Port Nolloth and Desert Rose, the series takes you there thanks to its home-grown sense of authenticity. This is established by on-location shooting, photographed against the Northern Cape’s arid landscape and carried through by its talented cast. Neil Sandilands, who also performed the theme music, lends a wealth of international acting experience as the charming yet downtrodden Freddy “Fingers” Greyling. As a figurehead for the Greyling family, it’s Freddy’s journey that kick-starts each episode with a flashback as present day Desert Rose comes into focus. 

Amalia Uys as Jan and Brendon Daniels portraying Pit Panga in Desert Rose on Showmax
Amalia Uys is Jan and Brendon Daniels is Pit Panga

Sandilands leads a first-rate local ensemble including Christia Visser, Kai-Luke Brümmer, Amalia Uys, Brendon Daniels, Inge Beckmann, Ben Voss, Daniah De Villiers and Craig Urbani. Having racked up a great number of South African film roles from Alison to Tess, Christia Visser’s instantly recognisable as the gutsy Ishara. The series reflects much of what made The Girl from Nowhere so appealing with Visser’s presence serving as a bridge and throwback.  

Kai Luke Brummer as Eben Greyling in Desert Rose on Showmax
Kai Luke Brummer is Eben Greyling

Kai Luke Brümmer impressed with a defiant and enigmatic lead performance in the Oliver Hermanus film, Moffie, bringing some of that restless spirit to his role as Eben. Then, Amalia Uys continues her fine run of form with another committed dramatic performance that pushes her well beyond her comfort zone. It’s also reassuring to have a screen veteran like Brendon Daniels, who has been in just about every South African gangster movie made, with a memorable turn in Sons of the Sea.   

Having such a diverse mix of established and budding acting talent, Desert Rose finds actors pushing each other to be their best. Steeping them in a relatable world of family dysfunction, financial pressures and dark secrets keeps the series on the boil as the nuances of their desperate characters rise to the surface. Grounded by solid performances, there’s an air of imminent danger and lawlessness to Desert Rose, which plays like it could’ve been staged in a dry and forgotten outlying town anywhere from Australia to America. 

Tinarie Van Wyk Loots as Rosie in Desert Rose on Showmax
Tinarie Van Wyk Loots is Rosie

Dealing with mature themes relating to family, loss and redemption, Desert Rose is entertaining and thought-provoking in its tragic portrait of the Greyling family. Created by the writer and producers who brought us Reyka, the series goes to some dark places, venturing into the shadowy yet timely abyss of child abuse and domestic violence. These provocative moments are relatively infrequent, yet Desert Rose isn’t afraid to get down and dirty, leaning into coarse language, nudity and violence. Maintaining a good level of tension as things tend to flare up with many twists and turns, the series has a driving intensity as the Greyling family continue to find themselves backpedalling yet always ready to fight.   

Stream Desert Rose now on Showmax. 

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