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Wednesday, May 29, 2013


While I enjoyed watching the TV adaptation of Agatha Christie's "Tommy and Tuppence" mysteries, it just about made me reach my limit as far as the "anyone can be a detective if they're cute and quirky enough" genre is concerned. I expected pretty much the same experience with Acorn Media's 4-disc DVD set MISS FISHER'S MURDER MYSTERIES, SERIES 1, but there was no need for concern--this is top drawer stuff, the real thing, and it's as good as any detective series I've ever seen.

Smart, savvy, witty, and endlessly sophisticated--but with a boundless sense of fun--are just a few of the ways to describe both the show and it's main character, Phryne (pronounced fry-nee) Fisher. This free-spirited independent woman, having spent World War I as an ambulance nurse, is determined to live life to the fullest despite any restrictions that polite society in Melbourne, Australia in 1928 might try to place on her.

After becoming involved in a baffling murder case (episode 1, "Cocaine Blues") and discovering she has a knack for solving mysteries as well as getting herself into trouble, she decides that the most logical course of action is to go into business as a private investigator. In true detective fiction fashion, Miss Fisher develops a friendly rivalry with local chief inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) which, in this case, promises to eventually turn romantic. They often join forces after Jack begins to grudgingly admire her deductive skills, while his callow apprentice, Officer Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), becomes not only a staunch believer in her abilities but also a behind-the-scenes ally.

The wealthy adventuress then moves into a mansion with her hardy butler, Mr. Butler (Richard Bligh) and goes about accumulating an extended family worthy of a John Irving novel: rough and ready cabbies Bert ( Travis McMahon) and Cec ( Anthony Sharpe), who are happy to act as her legmen after she buys them a brand new cab; devoted servant and companion Dot (Ashleigh Cummings), a devout Catholic girl who fears electricity but ends up going on dangerous undercover missions herself ("Death by Miss Adventure") when not being courted by the bashful Officer Collins; and an Artful Dodger-type street urchin named Jane (Ruby Rees Wemyss) who becomes Phryne's ward.

A series of scintillating murders leads Miss Fisher through the dark underbelly of "Roaring Twenties" Melbourne--with frequent detours through decadent high society--often with only her pistol, knife (which she keeps tucked in a garter), and judo skills to protect her. And like a female James Bond, she takes full advantage of any sexual opportunities that might come along. Behind all this, however, is the lingering memory of her sister Janey, who was abducted as a child by the loathesome Murdoch Foyle (Nicholas Bell), a sort of combination Moriarty and Hannibal Lecter whose eventual escape from prison will give series one its rivetingly suspenseful and emotionally involving two-part finale ("Murder in the Dark", "King Memses' Curse").

Painstakingly realistic period atmosphere and lush production values mix with top-notch direction and camerawork to make the show a visual treat. (Even the occasional shaky-cam is used expertly and unobtrusively.) Each episode brims with delightful jazz songs and instrumentals from the era, while props, costumes, automobiles, and settings are all wonderfully authentic. The Agatha Christie-like "Murder on the Ballarat Train" features a period steam engine, while "The Green Mill Murder" boasts a mint-condition biplane for Miss Fisher to pilot. The one-million-dollars-per-episode budget always shows up on screen, particularly in the beautifully-designed sets and the use of CGI to recreate such sights as a 1928 Melbourne skyline or a docked ocean liner.

Supporting performances are all fine, but it's Essie Davis as Miss Fisher who really sells the show. Miss Fisher is a fun-loving feminist without being stuffy or preachy about it--she leads by example--and the stunning Davis, hardly recognizable here as the fair-haired, ill-fated "Maggie" in the MATRIX sequels, exudes both lighthearted fun and emotional gravitas in the role, creating a detective character who's admirably intelligent but realistically so rather than coming off as a superhuman brainiac with the mind of a computer. Miss Fisher is the kind of woman who not only knows artists, which is scandalous enough for the time, but poses naked for them as well. The series is refreshingly adult but with a tasteful dose of whimsy that makes it all the more fun when it isn't being dark and dangerous.

The 4-disc, 13-episode DVD set from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles. Several informative featurettes make up the bonus features, including a 19-minute short about the look of the show, a profile of its creators, a set tour, cast interviews, costumes, etc. Original author Kerry Greenwood is a charming presence as she gushes enthusiastically about how well her imaginative visions have been captured onscreen.

Exceedingly first-rate in all respects, MISS FISHER'S MURDER MYSTERIES, SERIES 1 is the sort of entertainment that's so good I hate to come to the end of it. Considering the low expectations I had for it at first--a flapper detective?--it comes as one of my most pleasant surprises of recent years.

Buy it at

Blu-Ray (3-discs)


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