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After-dinner in the Crypt of Tears

Sometimes it’s good to have friends in Australia – here I am, sitting in the middle of nowhere while my country and much of the rest of the world is in lockdown, and yet I was able to pass an evening with the always delectable Hon. Phryne Fisher. And it was – interesting.

For the uninitiated, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears is the first feature film based on the mystery novels by Kerry Underwood and the TV series that was made based on Underwood characters.
The general premise: the last survivor of an aristocratic British family mostly killed off in the Great War, Australia-born adventuress Phryne Fisher becomes extravagantly wealthy and decides to set up a detective agency in Melbourne. What comes afterwards is simply delightful.

A much-loved TV series, the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries are the right mix of crime capers, tongue-in-cheek adventure, cliche subversion and romantic shenanigans. With a solid cast of excellent actors – spearheaded by the wonderful, stunningly beautiful Essie Davies – the series managed to attract a devoted following through three seasons. Apart from the beautiful central character, what caught the imagination of the audience was certainly the look of the series: costumes and locations are simply incredible.

So, when in 2017 a Kickstarter was launched to produce a feature-length original movie, the fan reaction was amazing, and the Kick made the target of 250.000 $ in 48 hours. And then kept growing. Three years on, and we now have Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, that mixes the classical mystery format from the series, but adds a modicum of globetrotting and more than a dash of Indiana Jones-ing: in 1929, hired to rescue a Palestinian girl held by the police in Jerusalem, Miss Fisher gets involved in a ten-years old mystery, a lost treasure from antiquity, and a curse.

The movie was written and produced by TV scriptwriter Deb Cox and directed by old Farscape hand Tony Tilse, and hereby we meet what’s probably the biggest drawback of the movie – its TV roots show, both in the story and the direction.
And indeed, fifteen minutes into the movie I was despairing – the action was limp, and the dialog was stilted. What the hell was happening here?
But then, fifteen minutes in, suddenly the story picks up, and finds its rhythm, so much so that the first minutes seem to be tacked on.

But soon the story engine starts firing on all cylinders. Series regulars make brief cameo appearances and the action focuses on Miss Fisher and her not-yet-exactly-a-partner Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. What seems to be an English Country House mystery slowly shifts into a story about ancient curses and Alexander the Great, and finally we move to the desert for the finale.

And it’s good. Not excellent, not life-changing, but very good – mostly, once again, on the strength of the cast and the looks. The mystery plot is not exactly airtight and the pure adventure finale is too short (because of course, we always want more adventure in deserts and in mysterious cursed crypts), but all in all this is a low-budget quality production that captures the sort of carefree thrills of classic pulp yarns.
There’s an independent, kickass woman solving mysteries, backed by a by-the-book cop acting as her sidekick. There’s an ancient curse. There’s camels and biplanes. What else do you want?

And the movie closes setting up a second film – and I’d really love to see it.
But the wet dreams of all Miss Fisher fans remains, I believe, a Miss Fisher/Downton Abbey crossover. It would be good to see Phryne come to Downton like an avenging angel in flapper clothes, and set those aristos straight once and for all.
Hey, dreaming is free, right?

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