Miss Fisher and the Missing Appeal of Miss Fisher

Full-length film discards the show’s charm

When the silly but stylish Aussie whodunit Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries—adapted from Kerry Greenwood’s novels featuring the Honorable Miss Phryne Fisher, a crime-solving flapper—went off the air in 2015 after three seasons, bereft fans took to Kickstarter to bring it back on the big screen. Though Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears got its premiere at the Palm Springs Film Festival in January, they scrapped a planned limited theatrical  for virus reasons. Now it’s back on the small screen, streaming on Acorn.

The film opens amid the 1929 Palestine riots. But the film quickly dispels any hopes that this feature-length revival might bring us a more serious, more political Miss Fisher. Instead, it’s wacky hijinks as usual, with Phryne (Essie Davis) cavorting in a spangly niqab on what looks like the set of the recent live-action Aladdin movie.

Instead of a film about the 1920s, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears resembles a film made in the 1920s, with all the slapstick humor, sexual innuendo, and casual racism that implies. The dialogue is arch rather than witty, and the film lays on the colonialism as heavily as Phryne’s red lipstick. The big-screen budget translates into even more rapid-fire costume changes, several live camels, and stunts involving trains, biplanes, and motorcycles.

Tragically, it also moves the action out of Australia—“the filthiest gutter of the realm,” as they describe it here—and into London and Jerusalem, for reasons never convincingly explained. The series always alluded to Phryne’s foreign adventures—and occasionally showed them in flashback, as in Season 1’s “Murder in Montparnasse”—but part of the show’s appeal was its seductive recreation of 1920s Melbourne, whose shiny jazz clubs, packed theaters, and meticulously-groomed lawn-tennis courts masked still-fresh war wounds and simmering racial, religious, and class tensions.

Melbourne isn’t the only major character missing in action. Phryne’s levelheaded assistant, Dot (Ashleigh Cummings), and Dot’s cloddish constable husband, Hugh (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), appear only briefly, in expository roles. “Miss Fisher saved me from the streets,” Dot recaps. “And from illegal abortionists and Latvian anarchists and factory machines and Christmas murderers.” It’s one of the film’s few funny scenes—and Dot’s only scene. However much of a wet blanket Dot could be at times, the film keenly feels her absence. Without Dot to humanize her, Phryne is grating and domineering; she comes across as a meddling spinster rather than a smart, sassy, sophisticated “lady detective.” Phryne’s other foil, by-the-book Melbourne police detective Jack Robison (Nathan Page), is on the scene but off duty, with no authority over her. As a result, the professional (and sexual) chemistry that sustained the series fizzles.

Instead, the film asks us to care about colorless new characters (Daniel Lapaine and Rupert Penry-Jones) and a hackneyed, convoluted plot involving a damsel in distress, a shady sheik, an ancient curse, a comically oversized emerald, and a conveniently timed solar eclipse. Clearly, the filmmakers intended to elicit comparisons to Raiders of the Lost Ark, The English Patient, The Mummy, and Downton Abbey. If only they’d also managed to evoke Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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