The end of WWl 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 which decimated an entire generation. Even before the war had ended one monarchy had been deposed, Russia, 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 Twenties 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 the biggest revolt took place as they dared do things undreamed of before the war. In a society where it had been considered 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 is adapted from one of Greenwood's novels. Set against the backdrop of the roaring twenties 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 writer's books, Miss Fisher is a completely modern woman. She has a healthy libido with no hesitations about taking any man who catches her eye to bed and 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 and then settled in Paris when her ambulance group was disbanded. While she had been brought up relatively poor as a child, 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 which 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 while 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 convince those in charge not to let him out 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 both 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. While 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.
(Article first published as DVD Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries Series 1 on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted March 2013)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.