TV’s most glamorous sleuth is back in a new series
Agatha Christie once said: “Oh dear, I never realised what a terrible lot of explaining one has to do in a murder.’’ Christie might have laboured over the intricate plotting of her murder mysteries, but she knew what she was doing — at one point she was the world’s biggest selling author.
The crime fiction queen capitalised on the fact most of us have an appalled fascination with murder. But Christie’s oeuvre also suggests that, so long as murder victims are rich and their corpses are found in vicars’ studies, Nile River cruise boats or English country mansions, then the business of one human killing another should never be taken too seriously.
Christie’s air of wry detachment is replicated in the myriad screen adaptations of her novels, from the Miss Marple series to the Death on the Nile films, and in other well-known dramas from the murder mystery lite subgenre. Who knew the English home counties had more murderers per manicured square kilometre than almost anywhere else on the planet, until Midsomer Murders came along? Similarly, homicide is as common as cloche hats in the exotic 1920s settings (a chalet, silent movie set, ladies’ roadster rally) that feature in popular local drama Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
The third series of Miss Fisher, which has been a strong ratings performer for the ABC, premieres this week and unfurls in a magic and burlesque show, Mighty Mackenzie’s Cavalcade of Mysteries.
Our eponymous heroine, Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis, owner of the sleekest bob in town), suspects foul play when a magician’s assistant, lying prone under a guillotine, is beheaded during a live performance.
Soon afterwards, we see the string of pearls the victim was wearing, marooned in a pool of her blood. This compellingly grisly image might have come from a nourish, art house film, but the horror is rapidly undercut by the characters’ perpetually dry tone and blink-and-you’d-missthem close-ups of the victim. When Phryne’s father, Baron Henry George Fisher (Pip Miller), a cognac-swilling wastrel who has invested heavily in the magic show, learns of the beheading, he says with a Christie-esque air of refrigerated detachment: “Murder, you say? … That is dreadful for me.’’
As Miss Fisher attempts to sort out the magic show’s petty crims from its potential killers, she stumbles across a contortionist in a suitcase, an apparent confession involving manslaughter, and a letter written by a woman who is supposedly dead. She is, naturally, always one step ahead of the police, including her devoted but chronically uptight beau, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page). Robinson is keen on Miss Fisher, but her seeming lack of commitment unsettles him. For our lady detective and prototype feminist, played with a slinky charm by Davis, is a career flirt who attracts a neverending parade of tango dancers, Russian clairvoyants, French artists and anarchists.
Set in late 1920s Melbourne, Miss Fisher conjures a fantasy world of butlers, inner-city mansions and enough stoles and evening gowns to furnish a double episode of Downton Abbey. At the centre of each narrative adventure is Miss Fisher, the amateur detective and sexual provocateur who out-sleuths the police, uses innuendo likes it’s her mother tongue and who clearly went to the same stunt school as James Bond. (In this episode, she is chained up in a water tank, and later in the series she will take on the mafia in a gunfight, perform stunts in a plane and pose for erotic photographs.)
Miss Fisher looks good and is tightly plotted, but ultimately I find it unengaging. The main problem is that it traffics exclusively in crudely sketched, pantomime-like characters and cheesy humour — in this week’s episode, we are meant to accept that Detective Robinson is knocked unconscious for hours by someone opening a door, giving Phryne the opportunity to undress him without his knowledge. Alas, when the key characters conduct their lives as if they’re endlessly striking a pose or performing in a Christmas variety show, it’s hard to believe in them and to feel drawn into their dilemmas.
Nonetheless the show, based on a series of crime novels by Kerry Greenwood (but now written as semi-original episodes), is one of the ABC’s more successful dramas and has proven global appeal — it has been sold to more than 120 territories. It’s also meticulously researched, as the producer-writer team of Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger strive to create in every episode a self-contained world, from a burlesque show to an authentic 20s tennis tournament played in high heels.
Another middlebrow drama replete with almost fetishistic period detail is Mr Selfridge, a British drama that also launches its third season this week. It’s created by Andrew Davies, a House of Cards writer and the genius adaptor behind 1994’s Middlemarch and the 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice that featured a young Colin Firth in that wet shirt. Screening on Channel 7, Mr Selfridge is based on a biography of department store mogul Harry Selfridge, an American who lived in London, was known as “mile-a-minute Harry’’ and apparently believed shopping could be as exciting as sex.
Series three opens with a grim scene — Harry (Jeremy Piven) is burying his beloved (if much cheated-on) wife, Rose, who was played by Australia’s Frances O’Connor. “How am I going to live without her?’’ he asks, with feeling. Buying stuff helps, apparently.
Cut to a scene, nine months later, and a triumphant Harry is returning, in a biplane, from a shopping spree in Ireland, where he has expanded his retail empire. He is still mourning his wife, but the marriage of his daughter, Rosalie (Kara Tointon), to a Russian artist and aviator is a welcome distraction — cue peacocks and an avalanche of white roses and wisteria on a vast, rooftop terrace.
But even before the wedding flowers have
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries;
Mr wilted, it’s clear that Rosalie’s new husband, Serge De Bolotoff (Leon Ockenden), is the drama’s resident bounder — he drinks, flirts with other women on his wedding day and is prepared to do business with his father-in-law’s enemy. He and his mother, a penniless Russian princess turned refugee, played with relish (and a thick east European accent) by Zoe Wanamaker, are out to siphon off whatever they can from the wealthy Selfridges.
Meanwhile, the mogul’s staff worry that his grieving heart is ruling his head, as he makes charitable investments his wife would have approved of but that are bad for his business’s bottom line.
Set in England at the dawn of the jazz age, Mr Selfridge has everything you would expect from a well-made, amply-resourced British drama about the tribulations of the rich and infamous.
There is a villain-in-chief and assorted minor villains; a debonair but traumatised war hero who turns to drink; and a privileged but feisty daughter who rails, ever so elegantly, against the gender restrictions of her era.
Like Miss Fisher, Mr Selfridge references defining events from the period in which it plays out — we see the nexus between prohibitionstyle alcohol restrictions and the rise of organised crime; and the tensions that spike when women continue to occupy the jobs of soldiers returned from World War I.
But, ultimately, this drama doesn’t fully ignite, mostly because of a lack of depth and flair in the characterisation and dialogue. The characters seem to telegraph what they’re about to do long before they do it.
Nor does it help that the dialogue can be trite and jarringly contemporary. “The whole thing will have a more modern, airy feel,’’ one character says about a section of Harry’s department store, as if she has wandered in accidentally from an episode of The Block. Downton Abbey it is not.
Essie Davis as the intrepid Phryne Fisher in
and, below, Jeremy Piven in