The end of WW l brought about a mini social and cultural revolution. The old order had proven itself corrupt by embroiling the countries of the world in a war that decimated an entire generation. Even before the war had ended, one monarchy (Russia) had been deposed, and Germany’s Kaiser lost power with the war’s end. However, the biggest revolt was among those who survived the war and were determined to live their lives to the fullest. The Roaring ’20s earned their name from the way those living through them roared through life in an attempt to experience as much of everything as possible.
It was among women that the biggest revolt took place, as they dared doing things undreamed of before the war. In a society that considered it indecent for a woman to be seen smoking in public, the idea of one having a career, taking lovers and generally acting like a man would have been especially scandalous. However, in the 1920s women enjoyed freedoms as never before. While some might have disapproved of their behaviour, it didn’t stop many of them from having lives of their own. It’s one of these independent women of the 1920s who is the lead character of a new mystery series on DVD from Acorn Media, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Series 1.
Phryne (pronounced Frynee) Fisher (played by Essie Davis) is the creation of Australian novelist Kerry Greenwood. Each of the thirteen episodes on the four discs in this set are an adaptation of one of Greenwood’s novels. Set against the backdrop of the ’20s, each features the seemingly fearless and indefatigable socialite and heiress Fisher solving a different murder. However, unlike heroines of a similar background who have appeared in other writers’ work, Miss Fisher is a completely modern woman. She has a healthy libido with no hesitation about taking any man who catches her eye to bed; she also has a taste for alcohol, cocaine, and hash brownies.
We meet her as she’s just moved back to Sydney, Australia. As the series evolves, we learn she had served as a nurse during the war before settling in Paris when her ambulance group was disbanded. Although she had been brought up in relative poverty, as a result of extensive casualties within her family during the war, she winds up inheriting enough money to enjoy a life of leisure. Her reasons for returning home are tied into events that had taken place during her childhood; events that will come back to haunt her as the series progresses.
Her younger sister had disappeared when they were both children, and although somebody was arrested in connection to the crime, it was never proven he was the killer, nor was her body ever recovered. He had been charged with attempting to kidnap another young girl who managed to escape before he could do anything to her. The man responsible is about to be released from jail, and Miss Fisher has returned to Sydney in part to prevent his release, and perhaps find out more about her sister’s fate.
Her investigating career begins by accident when she is been invited to lunch at an old friend’s house only to discover upon arrival the husband of the house has died under mysterious circumstances. In the process of uncovering the culprit she has time for a fling with an expatriate Russian dancer, expose an illegal abortion ring and a drug kingpin. Flushed with her success she decided to go into business as a private detective.
The first episode also introduces us to the other regular characters in the series. She takes on one of the maids from the household of the murder victim as a lady’s companion. Dorothy “Dot” Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) is a rather naive and sheltered young woman who has had a very strict Catholic upbringing. While she’s uncertain how some of her new employer’s behaviour will go over with her priest, she’s also slightly in awe of her and her freedom. Over the course of the series we watch as Dot loses some of her naivety and discovers her own strengths and courage.
The other two main characters are members of Sydney’s finest. Inspector Jack Robinson ( Nathan Page) and Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt). Initially Robinson treats Miss Fisher with the condescension one might expect from an experienced police officer confronted with what he considers a socialite out looking for thrills. However, he soon grows to respect and admire her, both for her skills as a detective and as a person. It still doesn’t prevent him from becoming frustrated and annoyed by her, but he does treat her like an equal and learns to trust her.
What makes this series special is the acting and the interrelationships between the characters. Davies and Page as the two leads have a wonderful chemistry reminiscent of some of great screen couples of the past. Although Miss Fisher has a rotating series of lovers, her relationship with Inspector Robinson gradually evolves over the course of this first season into something more than just colleagues and friends. However, both of them are hesitant about making any sort of commitment to anybody because of events in the past. His first marriage has just ended in divorce and Fisher, as we learn in one episode, has experienced an abusive relationship. It’s obvious they have reached a point where they might have to make a decision about the direction their relationship takes, but what that will be is still in up in the air.
While each episode is a self-contained mystery, as the series progresses the mystery surrounding Fisher’s younger sister begins to play a larger role in her life. Although she had ensured the man she believes responsible for her sister’s death is locked up for life, Fisher is still haunted by the fact her body was never found and he was never proven to be the one responsible. So when he sends her a letter from jail offering to give her information about her sister in exchange for Fisher helping to have his sentence shortened, she is torn. However, just when she decides to put it behind her, events happen that forces her to deal with the case. The last three episodes of the series see her and Inspector Robinson working together to solve the decades old crime.
Included in the four DVD set are some quite extensive special features as well a the thirteen episodes. There’s a look at the work involved in recreating 1920s Sydney, from set, costume and props design to a history of the cars and trains used in the show. As well as interviews with the four lead actors talking about their characters and their experiences working on the show there is also a very entertaining interview with Greenwood, the books’ author.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a well scripted and directed set of murder mysteries, but what makes it a joy to watch are the performances of the lead actors, especially Davis. (If you’ve seen The Girl With Pearl Earring you’ll be hard pressed to recognize her as the same actor who played Colin Firth’s wife in the movie) She is beguiling and pleasure to watch on screen. Not only does she play the flighty socialite to perfection, but she has the remarkable ability to allow us to see beneath her devil may care exterior to show the vulnerable and sensitive person beneath. It’s not often we are treated with seeing such a strong multi-dimensional female character in the lead role of a television series played by an actor more than equal to the task.