Monday, October 3, 2016

DVD Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries

Reviewed by Jeanne

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
Let me confess up front that I haven’t read any of Kerry Greenwood’s Phyrne Fisher mysteries.  I’ve known people who enjoyed them, but somehow I never picked one up.  Then several folks on DorothyL wrote how much they liked the TV show, so I decided I’d give it a try.  I knew the series was set in Australia in the 1920s, so if nothing else I figured I’d enjoy the setting and the costumes.
By episode one I was hooked.
For those unacquainted with the indomitable Miss Fisher, let me introduce you:  she’s wealthy, independent, headstrong, and beautiful.  She’s also intelligent and a crack shot with her gold plated pistol.  She moves to Melbourne to set up shop as a  lady detective—not that she needs the money, mind, she just likes a good challenge—and then as the title implies, she’s out to solve a murder a week.  Her foil is Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, a somber faced, no nonsense policeman who, predictably, isn’t enamored of the idea of a civilian, a FEMALE civilian, poking her nose into his investigations.
While the set-up is more or less formulaic, the series manages to sparkle brightly because of the characters and the setting.  From the bouncy jazz-ragtime-Tin Pan Alley music to the marvelous costumes, the show never lets you forget where you are, and it is simply glorious.  But amid the frivolity, there are stark reminders of the recent World War:  all of the characters carry scars, some more openly than others.
And of course there are the marvelous characters!  Phryne, of course, the worldly, sensual woman with nerves of steel and a heart of gold, and stoic Jack, but there’s also Dot, a naïve young Catholic girl who is alternately scandalized and thrilled to be in Miss Fisher’s employ; Constable Hugh Collins, a somewhat wet behind the ears young officer who takes his cues from Jack; Mr. Butler, a Jeeves-like figure with more than a few handy military skills to go along with his mixology; Cec and Burt, two mechanics who end up doing more investigating than automotive repair; and last but not least, Aunt Prudence, a sometimes staid matron who comes to appreciate her niece’s many talents (including the ones not suitable for genteel ladies, like, oh, being a skimpily dressed assistant for a magic act.) 
The series is perfectly cast.  The two leads have great chemistry, but it’s really their interactions with all the other characters that make this such a watchable show.  I’ve enjoyed seeing the characters evolve, especially Dot whose growing maturity mirrors the changing status of women in that era. There’s also an interesting interplay between Jack and Phryne.  The detective quickly comes to admire many of Miss Fisher’s qualities while being quietly shocked at some of her more risqué ones.  Phryne is more than a bit of a hedonist: she drinks, she smokes, and she indulges in passing affairs, many of which are more implied than illustrated.
 While most of the actors aren’t well known to American audiences, I spotted a few familiar faces; but familiar or not, the acting is in keeping with the tone of the series. John Noble (Lord of the Rings, Elementary, etc.) makes a brief but notable appearance; series lead Essie Davis has appeared in the movie The Babadook and will be in the next Game of Thrones series; and Miriam Margolyes (Aunt Prudence) may be best known as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter movies.  (I, however, recognized her from Blackadder.)
Visually, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a triumph.  I’ve already mentioned the wonderful costumes, but the sets and other accouterments are just as important.  Miss Fisher is a bit of a daredevil (yes, that may be classified as understatement) so we are treated to episodes involving early automobiles and auto racing and airplanes, not to mention parties, orphanages, and early radio. Social concerns of the times also crop up, including football scandals, unwed mothers, child labor, the plight of veterans, and more.
Finally, I have to mention the music again.  It’s catchy, mostly upbeat, and wonderful.  Whoever scores the show has done an excellent job using the music of the era to reflect the mood of the scene.
It should go without saying at this point that “Miss Fisher’s Mysteries” is highly recommended. The books are on my reading list too, even though I know the TV show made some significant changes.  The  Sidney Chambers/Grantchester combination of books and film have convinced me that much the same story can be told with significant changes and yet have both formats be totally entertaining. I think this will be another case of two winners

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