Tony Tilse, “Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears” (2020)
Filmed as an addition to the television series about the 1920s flapper / private detective Phryne Fisher (played by Essie Davis), this action adventure takes the unflappable flapper heroine into exotic Indiana Jones territory in the Middle East – Palestine under the British Mandate, to be exact – with much dash, if not depth. For all that Davis invests in her character – and it must be said she just barely pulls off Phryne Fisher’s many and varied contradictions as a wealthy socialite aristocrat, a detective with a steel-trap mind and a caring, compassionate human being – the film’s plot barely does her and her merry band of hangers-on, including Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), much justice: it relies a great deal on movie cliches and complicated twists that wear the plot thinner than it already is. At times it threatens to become another crime mystery thriller and then an action adventure, only to change its mind again and end up in an uncomfortable messy middle.
After rescuing a young Bedouin girl Shirin Abbass (Izabella Yena) from being unjustly imprisoned in Jerusalem by the British military police, Phryne Fisher begins to learn about Abbass’s background as the sole survivor of a sandstorm that engulfed her community – but not before her mother disappeared when three British soldiers turned up and massacred everyone while Abbass was away collecting honey from wild beehives – and the connection between Abbass’s mother and precious emeralds missing from a crypt dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. If that were not enough, a curse has been activated with the disappearance of the emeralds from the crypt: after the passage of six solar eclipses, on the day of the seventh solar eclipse, the planet will be destroyed by storms. Our heroine studies an almanac and, what do you know, figures that she and Abbass have only days to spare to return the emeralds (which they have managed to recover early on in the film) to the crypt in the Negev Desert. Together with Robinson and a British aristocrat, Jonathan Lofthouse (Rupert Penry-Jones), Fisher and Abbass fly out to Palestine and the Negev in a race against time.
With so many unexpected twists in the plot, making for a story that whizzes back and forth between Britain and Palestine, racking up unnecessary carbon emissions, originality starts to wear thin and groan-worthy cliches, such as one character barely managing to utter a clue before succumbing to an untimely and violent death, abound. The Indiana Jones action adventure angle is milked for all it is worth, with the scenes in Palestine adding Oriental exotica and contrasting with British scenes of foppish yet secretly sinister and selfish English aristocrats who think nothing of shooting up innocent women and children to steal cheap-looking icky-green gems or of squabbling over land through which they intend to build a railway, presumably without the interests of the local people in mind. Somewhere in all the derring-do and numerous implausible scenes in which Fisher and Company barely escape with their lives, a very Australian story in which a wealthy and privileged woman actually cares enough for an underdog Palestinian girl that she risks life and limb to get her out of jail and to freedom, for no reason other than she believes the girl has a right to protest against British imperialism and British theft of Palestinian lands, is buried very deeply. Unfortunately that aspect of the Phryne Fisher universe, which makes it particularly Australian and which could have lifted the film from its generic and confused mystery thriller / action adventure fusion, remains underdeveloped. The romantic angle of Fisher and Robinson takes precedence over Fisher’s concern for Abbass and her community.
Needless to say, character development is at a standstill, with even Jack Robinson being nothing more than Phryne Fisher’s stoic and oddly working-class handbag and other characters not much more than moving wallpaper stereotypes. The dialogue which should have been clever, witty and original instead is strained and rather lumpen. Too many minor characters appear for just a few minutes, never to be seen again. The colonial relationship between the British and the Australian characters in the film remains at a crude, superficial level.
As a light-hearted fluffy film that doesn’t take itself very seriously, this installment in the Phryne Fisher universe is colourful and easy on the eye, but I wonder if even the most ardent fans of the unflappable flapper Australian detective will be satisfied with the Hollywood-style treatment of the character, and all the cliches that such treatment has mobilised to Phryne Fisher’s detriment.