Essie Davis’s Phryne Fisher wins over Graeme Blun­dell

There’s crack­ing crime fic­tion ahead with a sexy, slinky, su­per-smart heroine

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

PHRYNE Fisher, a fash­ion­ably beau­ti­ful in­ves­ti­ga­tor with shiny black hair and wicked ways, of­fers pri­vate ser­vices in the tra­di­tion of Sher­lock Holmes in 1920s Melbourne. As lovers of crime fic­tion will know, Phryne — that’s ph as in physi­cian and Phryne to rhyme with briny — started life as the heroine of a won­der­ful se­ries of nov­els from that city’s Kerry Green­wood, and given the de­mand for the ad­ven­tures of the raunchy, in­de­pen­dent Miss Fisher, Green­wood is still pro­duc­ing them.

Now, in­hab­ited by the gor­geous Essie Davis ( Cloud­street, The Slap), Phryne is also the star of an am­bi­tious and much awaited 13-part se­ries for the ABC. And what a star Davis is too, a beau­ti­ful ac­tress who seems not so much to play Phryne Fisher but to col­lab­o­rate with her. A dab hand at con­duct­ing an el­e­gant dal­liance, Davis’s Miss Fisher is equally at home in Melbourne’s Parisian-style bistros or mix­ing with the city’s hard men in dark­ened lanes, her stylish heels click­ing in jazz time as her gold-plated re­volver ur­gently re­turns fire.

She is gor­geous, thrilling and dan­ger­ous: the coun­try will fall in love with her style, panache and de­ter­mi­na­tion.

I am a fan of Green­wood’s nov­els, and Davis is just how I imag­ined Phryne Fisher, even though at var­i­ous times I have fan­ta­sised about Cate Blanchett or Toni Collette in the role. Thank­fully the show, pro­duced by Fiona Eag­ger and Deb Cox, is as witty and el­e­gant as the nov­els, with just the right dark edge: a kind of at­trac­tive Bleak City noirish­ness. Miss Fisher’s Mur­der Mys­ter­ies is pro­duced with gen­uine big-screen cin­e­matic style: the es­tab­lish­ing first episode has the ex­pe­ri­enced hand of Tony Tilse to give it el­e­gant di­rec­tion, and there’s a lovely sound track from Greg Walker that echoes the mu­si­cal­ity of Green­wood’s prose.

I’ve ad­mired her books for years, af­ter read­ing Co­caine Blues — the first in the se­ries — in 1989. Green­wood is the class act of lo­cal crime writ­ing, pro­duc­ing gor­geous prose in an agree­ably strict form. She makes you purr aloud in ad­mi­ra­tion for the slic­ing wit with which she lib­er­ates the clas­sic golden-age Dorothy L. Say­ers kind of novel. The over­rid­ing im­pres­sion is of a satirist at work, exquisitely send­ing up what may be seen as friv­o­lous en­ter­tain­ments with their ‘‘ pup­pets and card­board lovers and pa­pier­ma­che vil­lains and de­tec­tives of ex­quis­ite and im­pos­si­ble gen­til­ity’’, as Ray­mond Chan­dler de­scribed such books.

Like Green­wood’s nov­els, the TV se­ries sub­verts the con­ven­tional idea of the crime thriller. In­stead of be­ing struc­tured around the test­ing of a hero’s prow­ess, the sto­ries of­fer us a woman who not merely tests her abil­ity as a de­tec­tive. We also see how she mea­sures up to the ex­ten­sive stan­dards of male com­pe­tence.

Miss Fisher, of course, leaves men floun­der­ing in her wake. ‘‘ Phryne is a hero, just like James Bond or the Saint, but with fewer prod­uct en­dorse­ments and a bet­ter class of lovers,’’ Green­wood once wrote. ‘‘ I de­cided to try a fe­male hero and made her as free as a male hero, to see what she would do.’’

Eag­ger and Cox (who is also the head writer on the se­ries) first col­lab­o­rated on Crash­burn, and then cre­ated two se­ries of

East of Ev­ery­thing to­gether in NSW’S By­ron Bay. Oddly enough in light of their lat­est project, East of Ev­ery­thing was about the mys­ter­ies of the male psy­che, the way blokes flee emo­tional con­fronta­tion and the at­tempts women make to in­fil­trate our bleak si­lences. Star­ring Richard Roxburgh as a peri­patetic writer in search of a true par­adise, try­ing to leave be­hind the bag­gage of failed re­la­tion­ships, the se­ries was set in a town with many sim­i­lar­i­ties to By­ron, the baby-boomer utopia where Cox still lives. It was touch­ing, wry and highly in­tel­li­gent.

But the pro­duc­ers were look­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent. When es­tab­lish­ing their new com­pany Ev­ery Cloud Pro­duc­tions af­ter East

of Ev­ery­thing fin­ished, Cox and Eag­ger were ac­tively seek­ing to de­velop a pe­riod crime se­ries for prime-time tele­vi­sion based on a suc­cess­ful book. They were at­tracted by the late 1920s pe­riod in which the Phryne Fisher books were set.

‘‘ Through the enor­mous dev­as­ta­tion of the war and the loss of so many men, women held the fort and new op­por­tu­ni­ties emerged for them,’’ Cox says. ‘‘ Many women missed out on part­ners and mar­riage and the con­ven­tional choices be­cause there just weren’t the men around, but then there were women like our Phryne Fisher who em­braced the op­por­tu­nity.’’

Eag­ger and Cox have taken Green­wood’s books and de­vel­oped a through­line or an over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive, partly in­vented, that al­lows them to ac­com­mo­date the sto­ry­lines of each novel and bring them to a close as the over­all nar­ra­tive un­rav­els.

In her for­mer life, you see, Phryne lived on the streets in Colling­wood, scroung­ing for food with her sis­ter Janey and avoid­ing the heavy hand of her drunken fa­ther. When Janey was ab­ducted on a trip to the cir­cus, Phryne was dev­as­tated. Af­ter World War I erased much of her fam­ily’s lin­eage, the dirt­poor Fish­ers of Colling­wood sud­denly found them­selves in a lofty es­tate in the English coun­try­side, with Phryne’s par­ents el­e­vated to the ti­tles of lord and lady. Af­ter a few years at board­ing school, Phryne de­cided there was more to life than fin­ish­ing-school man­ners and fled to join an all-women am­bu­lance brigade at­tached to the French army.

Though she is liv­ing a life of lux­ury when the se­ries opens in 1928, Phryne will not rest un­til she solves the mys­tery of her sis­ter’s dis­ap­pear­ance and en­sure that Mur­doch Foyle (Ni­cholas Bell), the man thought to be re­spon­si­ble, never gets out of jail. (Foyle is a kind of Mo­ri­arty to Phryne’s Holmes.)

The first episode — which fea­tures a stun­ning per­for­mance from Mi­randa Otto as a griev­ing widow at the cen­tre of the first in­ves­ti­ga­tion — starts as Phryne dis­em­barks the Ori­ent at Vic­to­ria Dock on her re­turn to Melbourne. Soon she’s en­sconced in the fash­ion­able Wind­sor Ho­tel, swap­ping edgy jokes about the un­nat­u­ral­ness of celibacy and the med­i­cal prob­lems of the ‘‘ wan­der­ing womb’’ with de­light­ful Dr Macmil­lan, with her sexy men’s clothes and no-non­sense ap­proach to the rife male hypocrisy of the time.

Then, be­fore her very proper Aunt Pru­dence (Miriam Mar­golyes) can drag Phryne off to at­tend her first soiree, she finds her­self em­broiled in a mys­tery: poi­soned hus­bands, il­le­gal abor­tion­ists, co­caine smug­gling rings and the search for the dan­ger­ous and elu­sive drug lord ‘‘ the King of Snow’’. Not to men­tion her erotic en­coun­ters with hand­some Rus­sian dancer Sasha de Lisse (Kristof Piechocki).

Mind you, de Lisse is purely a lust ob­ject for the preda­tory Phryne, giv­ing her a chance to flick off her silk stock­ings and try out the lat­est birth-con­trol de­vice, pro­mul­gated by one of her hero­ines, the ‘‘ thor­oughly mod­ern’’ Miss Marie Stopes.

Her ad­ven­ture reaches its steamy end in the mys­te­ri­ous Turk­ish Bath Palace, sit­u­ated be­hind a green door in a cob­bled lane off Lit­tle Lons­dale Street.

The se­ries is char­ac­terised by a charm­ing face­tious­ness of style sim­i­lar to that of Green­wood’s writ­ing. It con­stantly sur­prises with its clev­er­ness, and Eag­ger and Cox’s mas­tery of the crime thriller’s tropes en­sures con­tin­ual sur­prises of plot. When it pauses for breath the show takes us into a deco­rous world — a world of beauty, wit and charm — el­e­gantly re­alised by di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Roger Lanser and pro­duc­tion de­signer Robert Perkins.

Like Miss Fisher her­self, the se­ries should leave a long trail of ad­mir­ers in its wake. ALSO bound to col­lect ad­mir­ers is our favourite phys­i­cal co­me­dian Frank Wood­ley in his new epony­mous eight-part com­edy se­ries, di­rected by Trent O’don­nell, who gave us the acidic satire Re­view With Myles

Bar­low.

Wood­ley uses mainly mime and the odd sound — words rarely es­cape though the clown­ish mask of a face stran­gled and frus­trated by fran­ti­cally work­ing mus­cles — in play­ing the de­voted fa­ther of seven-yearold Ol­lie. She’s played by very pho­to­genic Alexan­dra Cash­mere, who looks a lit­tle like the young Shirley Tem­ple, and seem­ingly has no trou­ble work­ing with a clown, some­thing which might frighten some chil­dren.

Re­cently di­vorced Wood­ley is de­ter­mined to win back his ex-wife Em (Jus­tine Clarke, also a dab hand with phys­i­cal com­edy) and through some very funny flash­backs he tells us just what went wrong with their chaotic life to­gether. The first episode finds him fan­ta­sis­ing about the past in his lat­est job, which has him hand­ing out fly­ers for an egg fac­tory. Its de­noue­ment comes when, stuck in the vaude­ville-style eggy out­fit, he at­tends his daugh­ter’s school con­cert.

There are echoes of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean in some of Wood­ley’s rou­tines and also of the clas­sic Michael Craw­ford se­ries Some

Moth­ers Do ’ Ave ’ Em, which some will re­call from the 1970s. That se­ries fol­lowed the ac­ci­dent-prone Frank Spencer and his tol­er­ant, long-suf­fer­ing wife Betty through Frank’s var­i­ous at­tempts to hold down a job. They fre­quently ended in comic dis­as­ter. Wood­ley, too, is well-mean­ing and op­ti­mistic, but equally naive, clue­less and ac­ci­dent­prone.

He’s a supreme in­ven­tor of gags and a mas­ter of phys­i­cal tim­ing, and in this clever show he does a Chap­lin, blend­ing raw slap­stick with sen­ti­ment. As with Chap­lin and most of the other great silent comics, there’s a kind of ner­vous fas­tid­i­ous­ness about his com­edy, much of it per­formed to a won­der­ful sound­track from com­poser Mal Webb. Buster Keaton said that when he and Chap­lin first used the new sound cam­eras, what they most missed in them was the noise. The old silent-movie cam­eras made a rhyth­mic racket that both co­me­di­ans had un­con­sciously taken for a beat when they were act­ing.

Some silent comics mak­ing the tran­si­tion used a metronome for tim­ing; Chap­lin wrote his own mu­sic, di­rect­ing his scenes with a tempo go­ing on in his head. Wood­ley also seems to work to a beat, so ex­act is his con­trol over ev­ery gesture and move­ment.

And un­der­ly­ing the slap­stick silli­ness are some rather acer­bic ob­ser­va­tions about the way men who have stuffed up their mar­riages rarely cope with be­ing left by women they love.

Wood­ley, Wed­nes­day, 8pm, ABC1

Miss Fisher’s Mur­der Mys­ter­ies,

Fri­day, 8.30pm, ABC1

Essie Davis in Miss Fisher’s Mur­der Mys­ter­ies

Essie Davis will charm view­ers as Phryne Fisher in the ABC’S new crime drama

Frank Wood­ley gets into a fine eggy mess in an episode of his new se­ries

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