Acorn TV premieres 'Miss Fisher' film for detective show fans stuck social distancing

Hopefully viewers will tune in and discover the magic of this radiant little drama, and Acorn will see enough returns on investment to greenlight a sequel.
Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher in a scene from "Miss Fisher and The Crypt of Tears."
Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher in a scene from "Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears."Acorn TV / AP
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By Ani Bundel

In this current era of social isolation, streaming services — already rising as major players in the entertainment landscape — are particularly suited to the times. This is true of streamers both big and small, including Acorn TV, the AMC-owned niche streaming service that focuses on British, European and Australian TV. Acorn’s biggest flagship feature film release to date, “Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears” — based on Australian TV’s “Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries” — was supposed to launch this week with a limited run in arthouse theaters and a simultaneous drop on the Acorn streaming platform. The theater showings may be canceled, but the delightful, fan-driven film is still here on streaming, ready to cheer up those who are already fans of the Honorable Phryne Fisher, lady detective, and hopefully draw in a new set of viewers as well.

The delightful, fan-driven film is still here on streaming, ready to cheer up those who are already fans of the Honorable Phryne Fisher, lady detective, and hopefully draw in new viewers as well.

On the outside, the “Miss Fisher” film seems like it's following the “Downton Abbey” model of jumping from the small to the big screen. But the “Miss Fisher” film is really more akin to the crowd-backed 2014 “Veronica Mars” film. Fans of "Miss Fisher" stepped up and helped cover the $250,000 budget shortfall (Australian — $145,000 U.S.) when Every Cloud Productions failed to secure financing. The Kickstarter for “Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears” hitits initial goal within 48 hours, putting into motion a film that is a crowdsourced labor of love.

Fans love “Miss Fisher” because it is a rarity in the genre: Running for three seasons from 2012 to 2015, it was a series set in 1928, starring an unapologetically sexy and self-assured female crime-solver. Most of these mystery series from overseas are male-focused, whether it be the older period pieces like “Sherlock Holmes” and “Hercules Poirot” or the newer “Grantchester” and “Endeavour” series. Mystery shows starring women in the lead investigator role usually work to keep them nonthreatening. “Miss Marple” and “Vera” star older women, Helen Mirren in “Prime Detective” played a hardened and embittered detective, as so does Nicola Walker in the current series, “Unforgotten.”

Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) says nuts to that. From her arrival in the show’s series premiere she is joyous, a woman with a lust for life and a budget to live it. Her house is fabulous, her wardrobe extensive, and her car would make James Bond jealous. Her appetites extend to men as well, a virtual parade of them roll through her bed before she waves them off with a “I’m not the marrying kind.”

Moreover, Miss Fisher’s mysteries aren’t just solved by a feminist powerhouse, many times the mystery is itself female-centric. More than one crime winds up being complicated due to underground abortion activities, and more than one antagonist complains about the new “unchristian” activities of family planning. Crimes are solved because of Phryne’s knowledge of art, theater, fashion or details about clothing. The villains of these stories, when they are men, regularly turn out to be domestic abusers or sexual harassers. But just as often, these crimes are perpetrated by women who have been getting away with it because male investigators are blind to them.

In the series, Phryne Fisher regularly dazzles Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), her detective inspector partner in crime-solving, with her eye for detail and the clues he overlooks. Robinson is also her ultimate love interest, the man who’s hard to get because he respects their friendship. Their unacknowledged relationship contrasts regularly with the romance between Fisher’s companion Dot (Ashleigh Cummings) and Robinson’s constable assistant Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), creating dual couples for fans to root for.

As befitting a 1920s-era story, “The Crypt of Tears” rounds up every cliché of the “disturbed mummy’s tomb” mystery.

The film sadly drops Dot and Collins as it moves the action out of Australia to London and the Middle East, but that’s perhaps the only misstep. As befitting a 1920s-era story, “The Crypt of Tears” rounds up every cliché of the “disturbed mummy’s tomb” mystery, with mysterious curses, haunted ancient jewelry, trips through the desert and an emerald that can best be described as the size of a five-dollar footlong. “Downton Abbey” even gets an oblique shout out as Fisher name-checks Lord Carnarvon, the real owner of Highclere Castle, who famously found King Tut’s tomb. Along the way she also befriends Shirin Abbas (Izabella Yena), a woman fighting British control of Palestine, adding a nice touch of anti-empire sentiment to the proceedings.

But the mystery and the politics aren’t really the point of the story, and mostly stay in the background as a useful engine to bring characters together and give them something to do. The real delight is having Fisher and Robinson together again, bickering their way through solving this puzzle, staring at each other meaningfully over bodies.

And there’s the exhilaration of watching Davis in the role that made her famous, performing feats of derring-do in heels, gloves, scarves and trendy tasteful hats. (At one point she jumps onto a moving train wearing nearly all of these accessories; her hat pins must be a force of nature.) The film’s extra budget clearly went into costuming. In the one hour and 40-odd minute run time (including the midcredits scene teasing a sequel) she manages to wear no less than 16 outfits, some of which have enough components that she wears them in multiple distinct looks. Kickstarter backers certainly get their money’s worth.

While those tuning in expecting some sort of hardcore mystery may be disappointed, “Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears” understands where the story’s strengths lie, and what the fans want to see. It’s also enough of a standalone that a first-time viewer can get into the story and the characters without having seen the TV series beforehand. Not that Acorn wouldn’t like them to stay around to check out the show’s episodes, which are also available. (All three seasons moved back to Acorn ahead of the movie’s release, and the current “30-day free trial” the service announced ahead of the film’s debut is clearly timed to draw in eyeballs.)

Hopefully viewers will tune in and discover the magic of this radiant little show, and Acorn will see enough returns on investment to greenlight a sequel. In these dark times, we all need a bit more Phryne Fisher in our lives.