Guy Pearce and the continuing tale of Jack Irish
Guy Pearce returns as Jack Irish and the BBC once again investigates intrigue in the art world
Once one of the most popular forms of the mystery novel and television, the private eye — especially the manque version — has become almost obsolete. Often the character manifests as a parody, when it appears at all, a lone-wolf oddity. The disreputable hero of Peter Temple’s marvellous novels, Jack Irish, raffishly returning in a six-part series for the ABC, certainly fits this description. And he is nicely translated here from the mid-1990s Melbourne settings of Temple’s novels to contemporary Australia. Not much has changed: it’s a world of specious and ambiguous glamour hiding a great whack of corruption and violence.
The series, again produced by Andrew Knight and Ian Collie (they also give us Rake, which returns soon), takes us from inner-city Melbourne to the fleshpots of Manila, where Irish’s estranged lover Linda Hillier (Marta Dusseldorp), determined to fast-track her already distinguished career, has landed a somewhat dubious job as a foreign correspondent for an Australian newspaper.
While dismayed by the chaos of Manila, she’s intent on locating the infamous terrorist Hadji Adhib — a former student from Melbourne — while Irish is engaged to trace Wayne Dilthy (Dan Hamill), a recently released jailbird who is still troubled and who has links to something called the Whitehall Outreach Program. Hardened killer Stedman (Robert Morgan) and his thugs (“first-wave stuff, legs are running but their brain’s somewhere behind”) are also seeking him as Irish does the rounds of former escort agencies and strip clubs where his quarry works. There’s a shooting at a sordid motel (“These places are resorts for people trying to wreck their marriages”), and Irish is suddenly involved with the mysterious metal sculptor Sarah Longmore (Claudia Karvan), who bails him out of a trumped-up murder charge.
Guy Pearce’s Irish, now as thin and wired as a drugged-up greyhound and carrying great regret for the way things have turned out, is still an unlikely hero: a former lawyer turned cabinet maker who can never really admit to anyone that he is the kind of detective hired by people to do dirty jobs. He’s a figure whose basic characteristics identify him with the lower middle class — “his blokes and footy”, as his classy estranged girlfriend says, those condemned by their lack of economic mobility to inhabit the decaying edges of urban life in Melbourne.
The “blokes” are his long-time mates Wilbur (John Flaus), Norm (Ronald Falk) and Eric (Terry Norris) — great seeing them return, too — holding up the bar at the Prince of Prussia pub, ancient Melbourne larrikins still barracking the changing world, having given up trying to understand it.
In the earlier ABC movies, Irish seemed to simmer with rage just under control, but at the start of this series he seems desiccated, hollowed out and purposeless after it’s obvious he can’t commit to Hillier, who upbraids him as she leaves for Asia about the child they will never have together. She’s driven and successful, but Jack is one of life’s losers, a born drifter and slider. Reliably wearing a daggy retro cardigan, he’s an uncommitted soul, but beneath the mask, easily seen through by the erudite Hillier, he’s a Puritan with a rather conventional morality, a bleeding heart with a fast lip, never far from the streets, part of the geography.
Halfway through the first episode, he even finds himself the owner of a psychotic racehorse named (aptly enough) Lost Legion, though he has no idea how to feed or stable the nag.
And he continues to chase money from recalcitrant punters for the big-time Wodehousian bookie Harry Strang (Roy Billings). “It’s a food chain, Bruce,” he tells one unfortunate debtor whom he chases into a piece of playground machinery. “You’re a single-cell organism, I’m barely plankton and Harry Strang’s learned to walk on land.”
The wit is just right in Knight’s first-episode script. It’s a style that promotes substance and he never overdoes it, being careful to throw away the one-liners in the terse dialogue. And he respects author Temple, who creates stylish, lively prose, character and style and aura as important as plotting. But this story with its several so far not joined up threads, typically convoluted like the best crime writing, is a kind of archeological dig where layers of artifice and debris are peeled back until we get to the core.
The cast members — who also include the charismatic Aaron Pedersen as Cam Delray, Strang’s right-hand man, good with a gun but better with racing statistics; the redoubtable Shane Jacobson as Barry Tregear, old-school copper and another long-time Irish mate; and Brooke Satchwell as troubled Philippines aid worker Tina Longmore — are all splendid and in tune with the generic style so finely nuanced by Knight and Collie and their crew.
The action is well handled with just the right kind of discretion by director Kieran Darcy-Smith, realistic enough but not so enhanced and gloried in as to scare off an ABC audience, already a little alarmed at Aunty’s exercises last year in chasing younger viewers with Glitch and Hiding. Like the earlier films, he retains a classic Hollywood style of filmmaking, with simply choreographed scenes, broken only by essential close-ups and minimal cutaways. The drama essentially is caught in the framing, not the cutting, allowing the actors space to move and work inside the borders. You read Temple for the pleasure of seeing the phrases fall into place and this production finds the cinematic equivalent: intelligent, polished and entertaining.
Also returning for a fourth season is the engrossing Fake or Fortune? — the series that tracks the provenance of famous paintings and in doing so directly encounters the questionable, sometimes unconscionable, dealings of the international art world.
The formidable Fiona Bruce, one of Britain’s top journalists, a regular presenter of the BBC’s News at Six and News at Ten, a skilled interrogator, is the lead investigator. Philip Mould, impassive and impossible to bluff, is her partner. He is also a broadcaster and author who runs a London gallery and is a renowned tracker of lost paintings. Bendor Grosvenor, the third member of the art hunters’ team, is their scien- tific back-up. He’s obviously obsessed with tracking down lost and miscatalogued paintings and calls them “the orphans of art history”.
The series sees our sleuths crusading for the correct identification of priceless masterpieces in a show that is part detective series — there’s a lot of CSI- like scientific wizardry (think infrared radiation, microscopy and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy) as experts analyse brushstrokes and peel back layers of paint — and part travelogue, as they trace the paintings’ history and delve into informative art history discussions. Our detectives are a tough unit, thriving on their investigations in a world of subterfuge, deception and intrigue, and they’re fond of unmasking the occasional forger, as they have done in previous episodes.
The series opens with an investigation into three small pictures by one of Britain’s bestloved modern artists, LS Lowry, possibly valued as high as £200,000 ($404,000). A solitary rent collector by trade, he painted the belching chimneys, looming mills, the streets below packed with figures, invariably described as “matchstick”, of England’s industrial north, a world disappearing as he recorded it.
Cheshire property developer Stephen Ames has inherited three small oil paintings believed to be Lowrys, but there’s no evidence as to their authenticity, no paperwork or receipts. There’s also the problem of a signature signed with a biro. As always, there’s a lot of tension as the plot unfolds and the series has a rather delicious cinematic style to it — camera acrobatics, choreography, lighting and music are used deftly and subtly to heighten the tension, and visual style especially tells the story.
It’s a lateral cop show really, and shows the way the procedural remains one of the fastest growing genres in crime fiction. We enjoy reading about, or watching, detectives working as a team, gathering and interpreting evidence, plodding through clues, rather than trusting in an intuitive individual’s brilliance in solving crimes. At least this lot of investigators dress better than Jack Irish.
Jack Irish, Thursday, ABC, 8.30pm. Fake or Fortune? Tuesday, February 16, ABC, 9.30pm.
Guy Pearce and Roy Billing, top, as the title character and his occasional employer Harry Strang in Jack Irish; left, Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce put the art world under the microscope in Fake