Marta Dusseldorp’s Janet King, the tenacious, scary prosecutor with those chiselled good looks and that acerbic wit, is back, but this time she’s emotionally bruised, constantly looking over her shoulder at the demons that pursue her.
The second season is again an astutely realised mystery, shading over into courtroom drama and tapping fluently into the mythology of crime fiction. There’s caustic social commentary too, as well as what Graham Greene once called “all the old excitements at their simplest and most sure-fire”.
It is turned, this time by those smart storytellers, producer and writer Greg Haddrick and director Peter Andrikidis and his long-time collaborator director of photography Joe Pickering, into a slightly artificial but highly cinematic shapeliness that quickly becomes addictive.
The series began as a re-imagining of the legal drama Crownies, based on the forbidding real-life NSW Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. That 22-part show, which first aired in 2011, followed five young solicitors, dramatically highlighting the moral and ethical dilemmas that naturally grow out of the prosecution of alleged “wrongdoers”.
Janet King, airing in early 2014, pushed the Crownies model harder towards the HBO approach. It was more a kind of televised novel in which chapters unfolded as part of a larger whole through which the creators — Screentime’s Des Monaghan and Haddrick — could allow for surprises and unexpected detours.
The model: lots of exposition and character introductions at the start, rising action in the middle, breakneck pace in the final chapters. But while clues and circumstances are central to the narrative, the real focus is on character and the complexities of human motive.
King returned from a year’s maternity leave determined to prove she still had the drive and competitive edge to survive in the edgy, competitive world of the justice system. When she decided to convict a police assistant commissioner who had admitted administering morphine to his terminally ill wife the show fluently moved into action-thriller style after persuasively re-establishing the Crownies characters.
Again in true HBO style the new series quickly made us realise it wasn’t just a show about cops and lawyers and their personal lives, but a broader look at the Australian court system and the way the facade of morality and legality is often shaky and rotten: too many compromises and deals, too many lazy, untalented cops and lawyers, and where truth is not always a stepping stone on the path to justice.
The new series I think is even stronger, without losing its distinctive capacity to imaginatively examine the disparity between law and justice and provide a glimpse of a world in which good people do not stand idly by and allow the worst aspects of human nature to prosper without opposition.
It’s several years later and King’s twins are growing up but we quickly discover her female partner, Ash, was gunned down not long after the events of the first season, probably mistaken for the prosecutor. It’s a shock for viewers and one that is crucial to what will unfold. King is still coping with the loss, the experience locked away inside, and as hard as she tries to ignore the fear associated with what happened, and the threat to her children, the impact continues to magnify.
There’s guilt and personal devastation in equal measure, and with the gunman still on the loose, King lives in trepidation he may try again. “The show is about Janet and all the labyrinthine subplots have fed into her emotional state so we were always asking what is her story this episode, where does it begin and end,” says Haddrick, who wrote the first episode.
The season’s subtitle, The Invisible Wound, refers to post-traumatic stress disorder, and the way returning to routine daily life and recovering one’s sense of self can be especially challenging. The series begins with King wrapping up a coronial inquest into the suicide of a corporal with PTSD. And several parallel narratives — always the hardest to pull off — are skilfully established at the start.
During her cross-examination
Major Simon Hamilton (Aaron Jeffery), the man alleged to be responsible for tipping the corporal over the edge, King loses her famous professional control.
At the same time she’s chosen to head up a royal commission into suburban gun crime — after 19 shootings with prohibited guns in recent years — and soon believes solving the murder of Todd Wilson (Cody Kaye) on Australia Day will uncover what’s fuelling the violence. All this while still coming to terms with the shooting of her partner. The show goes to air following shootings in southwest Sydney, when the number of illegal and often stolen firearms filling the streets is huge, and with gun-related crime rising in many parts of the country.
“Both we and the ABC wanted the show to be as contemporary as possible so we were looking for theatre for our story which would resonate as having as much relevance as possible,” says Haddrick. “This is why we went for gun crime in southwest Sydney but we didn’t anticipate it would still be going on while the story was going to air.”
Unlike the world of the DPP, the royal commission allows King and her team to become the investigators — they can raid, interrogate and have police seconded to them. King and her team attempt to peel back the layers of intrigue underpinning the illicit trade in weapons. As she exercises her powers and begins uncovering the truth, criminal and political forces begin to stir, bent on shutting down the royal commission, even if it means destroying King in the process.
The show has the distinctive cinematic presence you’d expect from Andrikidis and Pickering, always sensitive to detail and low-key passages that establish mood and character but capable of virtuoso action sequences.
“Our movie influences are All the President’s Men, The Parallax View and Klute all directed by Alan J. Pakula (my “go to” director) and cinematography by Gordon Willis (Pickering’s “go to” cinematographer),” says the director. “We wanted a distinctive new look to the series and these films represented the best psychological political thrillers to inspire us.”
They found their central location in Bankstown in Sydney’s west, not far from where they shot the brilliant political action series East West 101, that wonderful dramatisation of the ambiguity inherent in the search for truth, meaning and citizenship in the post-September 11 world. As Andrikidis says, it’s a suburb of Sydney that hardly ever appears on our screens.
And it provides a wealth of cinematic visuals for the pair. King’s commission is centred in an old library that had stood vacant for two years but is now highly architectural glass-partitioned offices built across three floors by production designer Sam Hobbs. There is enormous depth for Pickering’s astutely chosen lenses and no one is more proficient at creating a convincing world for the stories and characters he shoots to inhabit. There is some lovely off-balance framing suggesting King’s emotional fragility, contrasted with classical Hollywood-style wide establishing shots and their signature frantic action sequences.
And Dusseldorp, surrounded by her terrific ensemble, including Peter Kowitz’s tetchy, jaded crown prosecutor Tony Gillies, is wonderfully brittle here, with a fine tremulous suggestion of vulnerability.
“It strikes me that good acting is very much like style in a novel — you should not be too conscious of it; its effect should be peripheral rather than central,” Raymond Chandler once wrote, and it could be a description of Dusseldorp’s approach.
“The camera loves her and she works really hard and talks constantly with the script department about what is exactly going on in Janet’s mind,” says Haddrick. “She’s able to capture sadness, regret, empathy, courage, strength, all in one line. It’s worth an analysis in itself the way she can convey so much.”
Her director is blunter in admiration. “I call her ‘Phar Lap’ as she has a huge heart and she just wants to wins every race,” says Andrikidis. “Marta is the best of the best — so prepared and delivering a wealth of magical nuance in every frame.”
March 24 at 8.30pm, ABC.
Marta Dusseldorp as prosecutor Janet King, above and left. In the new season, she and her team investigate gun crime in Sydney