Monday, July 06, 2020

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

Kind of a bummer that this wasn't as good as the television series that preceded it, but sometimes that happens, and it's maybe a bit more likely when the shippers get into the driver's seat and the romance pushes ahead of everything else aside and suddenly all the things that make Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries run smoothly - being able to plug Bert and Cec in to poke around the places Phryne doesn't fit, Dot & Hugh subplots to give the mystery time to marinate, a low-key continuing story that doesn't overwhelm the murder but adds something to the byplay between Phryne and Jack - aren't there, and the filmmakers have to either build them on the fly or figure out how to do without. There might be some material to get out of Phryne and Jack being out of their elements, or Jack getting an idea of what she was like before she returned to Melbourne, but the film never really goes there.

It's probably more of a bummer for longtime fans than me, presuming that they were as frustrated with how it turned out as I was, since it was the first new entry in a couple years, whereas it was basically a two-parter at the end of a binge for me. It did make me wish Mystery! was still a thing, but the recommendations Amazon is throwing up are the next best thing.

Looking forward to Modern Mysteries, or the next movie in this series. Heck, I might contribute if they go the crowd-funding route again, because despite this finale being less than what came before.

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

* * (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

One thing that good television shows do - like, say, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries - is to build a basic structure that allows everyone involved to do the repetitive-but-necessary steps of telling the same kind of story every week quickly and let them focus on the parts that entertain. Ideally, that framework is invisible, or works so well that it has its own appeal. Take it for granted, and the result is often something like Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a theatrical spin-off that delivers a fair amount of what the show's fans love but which doesn't have a replacement for the skeleton that held it together.

As it opens in 1929, lady detective Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) has seen her latest case take her from Melbourne to Palestine, where she is to rescue Shirin Abbas (Izabella Yena), a young lady who claims that it was more than a sandstorm that erased her village ten years before. Phryne appears to perish in the attempt, but reappears during her memorial service in London, attended by Sirin, her uncle Sheikh Kahlil Abbas (Kai Naga), Phryne's Aunt Prudence (Miriam Margolyes), Lord Lofthouse (Daniel Lapaine), his wife Eleanor (Jacqueline McKenzie) and brother Jonathon (Rupert Penry-Jones), and Phryne's usual partner in crime-solving, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page). A message from the mysterious figure that rescued Sirin at the time leads to a body, a mysterious gemstone, and a conspiracy - the sort of puzzle Phryne and Jack are used to solving together, though it's more tense than usual, as Jack is still upset about the circumstances under which Phryne left Australia.

The rest of the main cast from the series gets one scene before being pointedly ignored, and while there's a side of that which makes sense - don't spend too much time on the characters who aren't in your movie compared to the ones that are - but writer Deb Cox and director Tony Tilse are occasionally clumsy enough in how they do so in order to call attention to those absences. That Phryne was missing and presumed dead for six weeks is the sort of thing that makes a certain amount of sense in terms of storytelling convenience - it would take a while for Jack to get from Melbourne to London by ship in 1929 - but what she was up to during that period never becomes part of the story. That she apparently never contacted Sirin after the girl thought she saw Phryne die or takes a moment to ponder that the rest of her Australian friends might be worried sick could be an interesting way of digging into how there's a dark side to just how fierce Phryne's independence is, but the filmmakers are far too invested in her being exceptional to dig into this very much.

There's a potentially fun adventure/mystery story in there, although the sewing together of the "adventure" and "mystery" could use a bit of work. The murder mystery at the core is a good one, and if the split between English estates and Near-East deserts is not a deliberate homage to the life and work of Agatha Christie, but it functions as such, and even if the story doesn't always pivot easily between genres, the filmmakers embrace the pulpier half of the story with gusto (Phryne Fisher always has been a woman of action). The action isn't blockbuster-scale, but the period-swashbuckler style fits the film's retro sensibility. It's a little wobblier when a certain amount of mysticism enters the plot; even those for whom Crypt of Tears is their first encounter with Phryne & Jack will likely sense that this is not their usual thing, mostly introduced to give the last act a ticking clock.

Despite all that, there's no denying that the filmmakers deliver what's on the box reasonably well - at least, presuming one's favorite part of the series is the chemistry between Phryne and Jack rather than, say, watching shy and traditional companion Dot blossom over the course of the show. Essie Davis pours enough vivacity and charisma into Phryne that it's hard not to be drawn to her, especially when she's getting the absolute most out of Margot Wilson's costumes. Nathan Page is a reliable partner, almost always finding the right balance of wounded pride, reluctant fascination, and stoic capability. And even if this particular entry is set back in London, the filmmakers still know how to inject just the right amount of modern attitude and Australian energy into a form built in part on English formality to keep it familiar without being stodgy.

Truth be told, some of the things that make this film wobbly are present in the show and it's just better built to get the audience past them in ways that Crypt of Tears just isn't able to exploit. The good news is that it's far from a total loss - newcomers will certainly see the franchise's appeal, and even the fans who find it falls short of expectations will likely find themselves intrigued by the sequel teased during the credits. It's a letdown, but not one that actively negates the goodwill those involved have earned.

Also on EFilmCritic

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