Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

Series 1

 

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries: Series 1

Created for television by Deb Cox & Fiona Eagger

Based on novels by Kerry Greenwood

Written by Deb  Cox, Ysabelle Dean, et al

Creative Consultant: Kerry Greenwood

Production design by Robbie Perkins

Art Direction by Lance Whitehouse

Cinematography by Roger Lanser

Editing by Geoff Hitchins & Stephen Evans

Casting by Alison Telford

Music by Greg Walker

Produced by Deb Cox, Fiona Eagger, et al

Directed by Tony Tilse, Daina Reid, et al

First aired on ABC1 Australia, February 2012

 

Cast:

Essie Davis as Miss Phyrne Fisher

Nathan Page as Detective Inspector Jack Robinson

Hugo Johnstone-Burt as Hugh Collins

Ashleigh Cummings as “Dot” Williams

Richard Bligh as Mr. Butler

Travis McMahon as Bert

Anthony Sharpe as Cec

Tammy MacIntosh as Dr. Elizabeth Macmillan

Miriam Margolyes as Aunt Prudence

Nicholas Bell as Murdoch Foyle

Ruby Rees-Wemyss as Jane

 

Production:

Television: Every Cloud Productions for ABC Australia

Video: Acorn Media

 

Video

Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Resolution: 1080/50i

Codec: AVC

Disc Size: Dual layer 50 GB x 3

Bit rate: Low (15~20 Mbps)

Avg. Episode Runtime: 56 min.

Episodes: 13

Chapters: 7 per episode


Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo

 

Subtitles: English SDH

 

Extras: (all in 480i)

The Look (19:05)

Meet the Creators (4:45 min.)

Set tour (3:35 min.)

Cast interviews (8:35 min.)

Vehicles (2:05 min)

Steam Train Experts (1:30 min.)

Locations (4 min.)

Acorn Previews & Trailers



The Set-Up:

The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries are, first, a series of popular historical detective novels by the Australian author and solicitor Kerry Greenwood. Starting with “Cocaine Blues” written in 1989, there are nineteen Phryne Fisher Mysteries to date, the most recent published only last year. The television series is based mostly on existing material by Greenwood , who also acted as Script consultant for the series. The protagonist is a twenty-eight year-old aristocratic feminist of means, living in Melbourne in the late 1920s. The “Honorable Phryne Fisher” lives more or less alone, has lovers as she pleases, and seeks adventures according to her interest and whim. The name “Phryne” by the way (pronounced “fry-nee”) derives from a 4th century B.C. Greek courtesan of excellent and daring repute and a yellowish complexion (“Phryne” = toad).


     

 

Miss Fisher joins that redoubtable list of fictional amateur detectives that includes the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Jane Marple. There is something, therefore, conveniently nostalgic about Miss Fisher: the setting, the intrusive, though brilliant deductive powers of observation. The fact that these detectives are all British, or nearly so. You might think of Miss Fisher as a much younger, sexier, brashier version of Miss Marple. Miss Fisher’s keen fashion sense is complemented by her choice of transportation. James Bond may have his Aston Martin DB5, but Phryne’s Hispano-Suiza is to die for.


     

 

Like Marple and Holmes, Phryne Fisher has an oddly collegial relationship with the police - in her case, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (like Holmes’ Lestrade and Marple’s Craddock). Like Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars. Miss Fisher, for all her dash and wit, depends on associates of a very different class to gather information and/or carry out certain activities unsuitable for the detective. In Miss Fisher’s case, these are Bert and Cec, working class blokes willing to get their hands dirty for their boss, and “Dot” Williams whom she rescues from the certainty of unemployment after Dot is involved in a murder case, and takes her on as her maid and part-time undercover agent. And while Peter Wimsey has his Harriet Vane to distract him from his life as a bachelor and gentleman detective, Miss Fisher, a confirmed bachelorette, has her “Jane,” an orphan she picks up early in the television series.


     

 

Critical Press:

Radio Times

Just when you thought that all variations of the amateur-detective genre had been explored, along comes Miss Phryne Fisher, who sashays through the jazz clubs of 1920s Melbourne, tackling villains with her pearl-handled pistol. The plot’s hardly revolutionary, but it is worth watching for lead actress Essie Davis, with her sleek bob and killer cheekbones, who runs bad guys to ground with both wit and raunch. – David Brown

 

Mystery File

MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES is a delightful traditional (not a cozy) mystery series that rivals the British visually and in quality of the production. Reportedly, the series’ budget was $1 million per episode, and it shows. . . In addition to the engaging mysteries, MISS FISHER takes a serious look at the social issues of the time, but with a sense of adventure and humor that makes the stories enjoyable to watch. The episodes are for mature audiences due to subject matter. . . Phryne encountered [sic] murder mysteries while traveling on a train, dancing in a jazz club, watching Gilbert and Sullivan on stage in Chinatown , a bookstore, and at the Circus. She dealt [sic] with drug smugglers, anarchists, Zionists, a ghost, blackmailers, an ancient Egyptian cult and delinquent teenage girls. She can fly a plane, drives a Hispano-Suiza automobile, can handle various weapons including her favorite gold, pearl handle pistol, and can challenge James Bond in number of lovers. – Michael Shonk


     

 

The Series: 6

No doubt about it, this is one great looking series, beautifully rendered on Blu-ray by Acorn Media. Given its target audience - those who need a break from cold-blooded police procedurals, like George Gently or Denmark’s The Killing, and instead desire the trappings of a mystery, clothed in nostalgic art direction and costumes and the occasional cool plane, train and automobile - the series will not disappoint. Unlike Foyle’s War, however, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries are not especially clever or politically or socially insightful. There is a certain amount of dash in the dialogue, but a not inconsiderable amount of it is clichéd, despite the delivery, and still more has characters repeating in dialogue what we can see with our own eyes.


     

 

My feeling is that how one responds to the series depends a great deal on how one feels about its leading lady, Essie Davis, the 42-year old, award-winning Tasmanian clothes horse of an actress with those impossible cheek bones and Cleopatra bob that comes off more like a wig than her hair. I didn’t warm to her for the first several episodes, feeling that she tries too hard to play her part – in contrast to everyone else, who seem to fit theirs more easily. I also thought her too old – that was before I learned that Greenwood gives Phryne’s age at 28!


And I can’t say I am comfortable with her smirking conceit which looks good on Connery, Moore and Craig as Bond, but not Lazenby, Dalton or Brosnan. Brad Pitt can do it, but Matt Damon and Ben Affleck can’t. Not many of women can pull it off either. In the old days, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert and Vivien Leigh were all entirely comfortable and convincing in that domain, but most actresses today just look like they’re posing for sleazy magazine covers. Angelina Jolie is an unusual exception. So, not everyone can pull it off, even if their characters are meant to. Most viewers, though, will respond to Davis’ cool, detached, jazzy way with every situation and ignore the fact that all her supporting actors seem more natural in their parts. In any case Miss Davis eventually relaxes into her role and, except for her trolling for men much younger than herself – which Phryne can afford to do – I found her suitable enough.


     

 

There are few shows that can deliver a self-contained show in hour-long shows these days: Dr. Who being one of the better examples. Mysteries of less than feature film length would do better than keep their plot points simple. For the first few episodes, the Miss Fisher Mysteries are far too complex for so brief a time and therefore motivation and development suffers. The Australians are not immune to the same mistake that dogs American TV shows: to cram the first episode with all the bits that the series in general will be about, figuring that if they don’t they will lose audience share. The best shows don’t do this, and instead allow the longer arcs to arrive and develop in their own time instead of forcing them into the initial outing.


     

 

The thread about Phryne’s sister who disappeared years earlier is too thinly presented, and just as thinly developed. Phryne has a habit in the early episodes of picking up strays and taking them home with her. She takes on responsibility for the orphan “Jane” with almost not nearly enough motivation to convince us that she is ready to give up a life responsible only to herself. Then there are details that try the most modest of criminal expectations: Why, for example, does the killer leave his victim hanging from a water tower for all to see in “Murder on the Ballarat Train” instead of dumping her over the top? In that same episode why does Phryne pull out her gold-plated(!?!) revolver, which is not a 38, I’m happy to say, as the police inspector calls it, to investigate some muffled noises from a nearby compartment before any evidence of foul play could possibly be inferred?


     

 

The supporting players are a treat, especially Ashleigh Cummings as “Dot” Williams, Phryne’s skittish maid. She is so dear, you just want to take her home and give her a dish of warm milk. Miriam Margolyes as Aunt Prudence is underused, but a delight whenever she’s on. You may remember Miss M from as far back as The Black Adder series, and recently as Professor Sprout in the last installment of the Harry Potter films. Travis McMahon and Anthony Sharpe as Bert & Cec don’t get nearly enough to do either, so we hope that the series developers will sort them out eventually.


     

 

Video: 8

Viewed on one’s computer you are likely to see how this transfer’s low bit rate and 1080/50i resolution combines to make for some pretty gnarly movements across the frame, but seen as it should be, projected onto a large screen with a proper video processing projector, the image looks pretty darn good. Colors are rich, yet natural with good skin tones and leaping lizards lipstick. Black tend to crush enough to notice, especially in darkly lit scenes.


     

 

Audio & Music: 8/7

Unlike some critics (amateur and professional) who are frustrated with the lack of a surround mix for TV shows when stereo is how the mix is originally recorded and presented for television, I find 2.0 entirely satisfactory when transferred in an uncompressed mix as is here: DTS-HD MA. There’s plenty of dynamic clarity in the dialogue and effects, and the steam engine trains have sufficient weight as well. I found Greg Walker’s music tiresome, not because it wasn’t apt, which it sort of was, but because it was so reminiscent of Anne Dudley’s work for the immortal Hugh Laurie/Stephen Fry Jeeves & Wooster series.


     

 

Bonus: 7

There’s a good sprinkling of bonus features here, mostly of the EPK variety. It’s especially nice to have author Kelly Greenwood on hand to chat about how her novels were transformed into television; Miss Greenwood also serves as our guide through the sets, and in another series we are treated to detailing the various Melbourne locations used in the series. But the most informative segment is “The Look” which goes into the show’s art design and costumes.


     

 

Recommendation: 7

The Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries are pleasant enough entertainment, lovely to look at, with lightweight Aussie accents and lightweight plots. The murders may be heavyweight, but the thrills are modest and a smile is always just around the corner. In fact, what makes the series so successful as entertainment - the ever changing colorful locales and socio-political contexts in which Miss Fisher places herself to solve this or that crime - is what makes the show that much less believable in terms of character: no single person could be so expert in a tenth of the situations as our heroine finds herself. What makes a detective series work as a detective or police procedural, what makes everyone from Sherlock Holmes to James Bond convincing - the context in which the protagonists ply their skills - is what turns Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries from a mystery series into vaudeville.


     


There is an honest attempt at recreating period, though the show should not in any way be compared to Mad Men in this respect. Each episode’s crime is self-resolved and there is an overarching thread that gradually develops in the background. To its credit, the mysteries themselves are neither too complicated nor too facile. Still, I don’t this as having serious rewatchable value. That said, Acorn’s 3-set is value-priced at just under $50 for some 13 hours of entertainment. By the way, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries are also available on DVD at the same retail price as the Blu-ray, which is something of a welcome change.


     

 


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

April 7, 2013


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