For those unacquainted with ABC’s hit whodunnit series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, based on author Kerry Greenwood’s detective novels and set in 1920s Melbourne, each episode begins with somebody carking it.
The show’s three seasons (there’s also a spin-off called Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries) depicts a variety of, shall we say, not ideal ways of exiting the mortal coil – from shootings and stabbings to poisonings, hangings and even beheadings. The fashionista-detective Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) inevitably solves each case and reveals the killer in a succinctly worded monologue towards the end.
One approaches a movie spin-off expecting greater spectacle and a larger body count. On that level Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears – Fisher’s first foray to the big screen, which was partially crowdfunded by the fans who made the series something of a cult hit – more or less delivers, though the first death occurs well into the running time and is unimaginatively staged: one of those cliched “person with information dies before being able to spill the beans” incidents.
Directed by Tony Tisle and written by Deb Cox, the film’s globetrotting storyline sounds action-packed, but plays out scene by scene with surprising lethargy; the experience never really springs to life. Its protagonist certainly has a lot of up and go, racing across rooftops in Jerusalem early in the piece and busting a young Bedouin woman, Shirin (Izabella Yena), out of prison before leaping on to a moving train. Locations range from the deserts of the Negev to rain-soaked streets in London.
There are many loopy Saturday matinee style elements: think along the lines of precious artefacts, a tattoo that doubles as a map, and glowing green rocks that are supposed to be treasures but look like they’re made of plastic. The central mystery involves what happened to Shirin’s family and village, which was wiped out when she was a child by a disaster said to be connected to a mysterious amulet. Fishers’ long-time “will they or won’t they’’ potential interest Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) comes along for the ride, very much the second fiddle.
In tone and temperament, Crypt of Tears has the distinct waft of an 80s movie made during the 10BA era in Australia, when generous tax incentives encouraged cashed-up film-makers to create kooky spectacles. I was reminded particularly of the 1986 adventure movie Sky Pirates, a sporadically entertaining flop starring John Hargreaves as a pilot at the centre of a narrative involving time travel and sacred stone tablets.
But Crypt of Tears doesn’t have the “let’s burn money and film it” showiness of a 10BA film. In fact, lavish wardrobe and some opulent locations notwithstanding, it looks cheap. And indeed it was, costing a reported $8m, which is pittance for a period feature of this scale. The penny-pinching aesthetic is particularly noticeable in exterior city shots in which the background is blurred out, saving costs by reducing the need for period details.
One of the film’s biggest problems is the flavourless cinematography of Roger Lanser, whose framing doesn’t look much more adventurous here than it did in his previous feature – the awful low-fi comedy That’s Not My Dog. While staging scenes – often simple dialogue exchanges – Lanser frequently moves the frame left to right, or right to left, or up to down, or in half circle-like curving motions, attempting to jazz up a visual experience largely comprised of bland mid shots.
It is largely for this reason that Tisle rarely conjures a cinematic feel, despite situations clearly intended to create heightened atmosphere – from action moments including the aforementioned speeding train, to dark rooms lit up by flashes of lightning. The dialogue is often hokey and hackneyed (“that woman has more lives than an alley cat!”) and the narrative structure oddly muddled, with derivative tangents and ho-hum flashbacks.
On several occasions I had to pause to remind myself what the story was about and what each of the characters were trying to achieve. There are moments of Scooby Doo-ish schlock and Hallmark sentiment – particularly in the continuation of Phryne and Jack’s relationship, which fans of the show will dig.
Essie Davis is a delight, as she was always going to be, in a role that now fits her hand in decadent leather glove. The costumes are of course absolutely fabulous and it’s a rush to see them used in on-the-run situations, the script affording Fisher the pluck and derring-do of Indiana Jones – when the experience is not bogged down in yackety-yak, which unfortunately it is for the majority of the running time.
It’s also refreshing to see such a strong, stylish, empowered female character at an age that is sadly unconventional for lead roles in film and television – Fisher neither a 20-something go-getter nor an older Jessica Fletcher or Miss Marple type figure. But these are strengths of the show rather than unique selling points for the movie. Many of the TV episodes are snappy, breezy, moreish affairs. The film on the other hand is messy, uninspiring and – despite some kooky flourishes and pretty costumes – lacks energy and verve.
• Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday 27 February
Source: The Guardian