Australian actor Essie Davis is having a busy time of it lately. She’s just returned from the London opening of the controversial and acclaimed True History of the Kelly Gang, in which she plays outlaw Ned’s manipulative mother, Ellen, for her director husband, Justin Kurzel.
Next up is the wide release of the Australian drama Babyteeth where she and Ben Mendelsohn play the parents of a terminally ill teen (Eliza Scanlen) who falls in love with a junkie (Toby Wallace). Then there’s the title role in the upcoming New Zealand film The Justice of Bunny King, the story of an impoverished woman trying to regain custody of her children. It is, by anyone’s measure, a full slate.
But the biggest release on Davis’ calendar is no grim drama, but a light, bright and pacey globe-trotting adventure that once again sees her slip into the cocktail dress of 1920s lady detective Phryne Fisher, an icon to a worldwide legion of devoted fans.
Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears picks up some time after the third and final season of the ABC’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries left off back in 2015 and sees the crime-solving bon vivant, with perennial love interest Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) in tow, attempting to unravel a murder that will take her from the stately manors of Jazz Age England to the deserts of Mandate Palestine and the dusty hallways of antiquity.
It’s a much bigger story than we’re used to – if the TV series took its cues from Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, this is most assuredly inspired by Indiana Jones and his ilk, with the resourceful Phryne not just on the trail of a murderer, but a fabulous ancient artifact to boot. But upping the scale was always the intention, Davis tells us.
“I knew how important this was to be a cinematic experience,” she explains. “And not a telemovie that we were just showing on the big screen. It had to be cinema-worthy and take an audience on a big adventure and be complex and funny and dark, and still have all the things that people love about Phryne: her naughtiness and her tenacity and her sleuthing and her incredible skills. And it has to also have action sequences that are bigger than you could ever possibly afford to do on an ABC budget on TV.”
To that end the production team, under the direction of TV veteran Tony Tilse working from a script by series writer Deb Cox, decamped for Morocco for two and a half weeks, the blazing sands of the Sahara Desert standing in for 1920s Palestine. Although a tight, quick shoot – “we had more than half the movie to shoot, so it was as fast and furious as a television episode shooting schedule” – it meant really opening up Phryne’s world and giving the audience what Davis calls “bang for their buck.”
“We were so lucky to be able to film in Morocco and have not only the incredible Sahara Desert but to have studio sets that were like cities and filled with the incredible Moroccan people who are all very, very different and very, very down to earth and beautiful. I think it’s worth it just to be in that world because it’s an incredibly beautiful world to look at.”
Still, the shoot was not without its difficulties. “There was a lot of tummy trouble,” she confides. “Which is not good in a white linen suit!”
Still, we can trust the redoubtable Miss Fisher to take it all in her stride. Since debuting in Kerry Greenwood’s 1989 novel Cocaine Blues, the unflappable flapper has amassed a fervent following of fans from around the globe. Indeed, the fanbase is directly responsible for the existence of Crypt of Tears, contributing to two separate crowdfunding campaigns to raise over $1.5m of the $8m production budget. For her part, Davis is grateful and somewhat humbled by the passion of her fans.
“I feel so honoured to be able to play her,” she says. “I don’t know when I started realising… I guess over the years that it’s sort of crept out into the world. You get letters from Brazil and Germany and France and Russia and now America – it’s kind of been what feels like a slow burn, actually. Now they have conventions – Phryne conventions! – and they design their own outfits and badges and socks and scarves and T-shirts! I didn’t know about those. There’s a Miss Fisher podcast! People do walking tours of Melbourne – Phryne walks. It blows my mind, really, how important she is to people, but there’s something about her buoyant spirit and her sense of independence that has empowered a lot of people from all walks of life and all over the world.”
The appeal of the character, however, is unmistakable. “She’s a joyous and buoyant and delightful character to play because she’s so witty and intelligent and naughty. It’s quite delightful to get back into her shoes and have something new to say and something new to do and have a real big adventure to go on. She’s a woman of the world and it was really fantastic to be able to take an audience with her on this adventure.”