The Honorable Phryne Fisher doesn’t care what you think; she will run wild, have romances, and investigate murders if she wants. She has the gumption other flapper-era women lack, and a keen eye for detail. She also doesn’t mind crossing the infinitely forgiving Inspector Jack Robinson. What she lacks, though, is the ability to outrun the ghosts she wants to silence with her “lady detective” work.
This Australian TV series, based on Kerry Greenwood’s novels, harkens back to an earlier time in television history. This doesn’t just mean its lush Jazz Age stylings and design. It also eschews rambling subplots, slow mounting exposition, and Hill Street Blues busyness. It has the kind of unadorned straight-arrow narrative and period stylings that keep audiences returning to Miss Marple and Upstairs, Downstairs.
Essie Davis, best known to world audiences for a supporting role in the Matrix sequels, plays Miss Fisher as a woman who has to keep her happy mask permanently fixed. Her smile seems stretched a little too wide, as though if she forgets for a minute, she’ll start crying—and she does, at times. In ways, she seems the very emblem of the 1920s, cash-strapped but profligate, trying to dance wartime memories away.
Nathan Page as Inspector Robinson wants to be her opposite number, all button-down suits and legal procedure. Page’s high, knife-sharp cheekbones give Inspector Robinson a hungry look, and his unsmiling, puppy-eyed demeanor cracks occasionally, just enough to permit glimpses of his own damaged history. The story doesn’t even pretend Miss Fisher and Jack Robinson won’t eventually end up together. It respects us too much for that.
Davis and Page, the billed stars, headline a remarkable cast combining relative unknowns with Australian stars. Miranda Otto, who played Eowyn in LotR, appears in the first episode, but she’s probably the only star international audiences will recognize. This leaves us free to enjoy the characters as they are, unencumbered by prior expectations their respective CV’s bring along.
Combining these Hitchcock-like techniques with spirited performances in which the actors tacitly acknowledge the cheesiness, the show manages the same wonder we remember from Dark Shadows or the original Doctor Who: being cheap without looking cheap. Even on those occasions when we can see sets wobble, the actors persevere with such cheeky aplomb that we can’t help wanting to follow along.
Australia remains, for Northern Hemisphere audiences, the other side of the world. Despite Reagan-era flirtation with Crocodile Dundee and “Do You Come From a Land Down Under,” we remain unaware of the land; Australian actors like Hugo Weaving and Hayden Christensen leave the country and suppress their accents to find high-paying work. We just don’t know much about the Antipodes.
This series shows a side of Australia not much known to outsiders. The colonial situation gives the story a distinct texture: Australians have their own accent and culture, but still spend pounds and fly the Union Jack. Revolutionary Leninist sentiment abuts against Crumbling Empire gentility, shocking poverty against remarkable wealth. Miss Fisher, born poor and accidentally rich, repeatedly finds herself at the nexus.
The murders almost don’t matter. As in Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, the body exists to hook audiences into the protagonist’s display of considerable acumen. But Miss Fisher and Inspector Robinson don’t completely exclude Dashiell Hammett-esque grit; their investigations frequently take them down sooty alleys or expose the seamy underside of apparent colonial glamour.
Miss Fisher’s retinue seems like a cooling blast from the past, when detectives didn’t need to cuss, and “good guys” still existed. This show has murder, but little blood; afterglow, but no graphic sex. It will speak to audiences who remember when TV reflected our aspirations, not our failures.