Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020)
So Glamorous, it’s Criminal.
I admit murder-mysteries are not my thing. I find them oddly sanitized in their depictions of death, and usually a bit too leisurely in their pacing — I get it, it’s about the psychology of the murder and the unraveling of the puzzle at hand. However, it does mean you’re spending an awful lot of perceived time dealing with the questions, so they’d better be interesting, and the answers, worthwhile.
Sadly, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears’ biggest mysteries are centered around how this film wound up being such a drag when its legacy had been tried and true, with the original book series by author Kerry Greenwood, several television seasons, plus a modernized spin-off. The fanbase is clearly dedicated, literally putting money into this big-screen take via a highly successful crowdfunding campaign. That side of production also paints a depressing picture of genre film funding in Australia, one where even proven property can’t get a healthy enough budget to begin production. But I digress. The general plot (or what I could make of it) goes a little like this …
1929, Jerusalem. The highly fashionable Lady Detective Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) frees political prisoner Shirin Abbas (Izabella Yena) from a death sentence, promising to find out more about why her family and tribe were killed when she was just a girl. In the ensuing escape, Miss Fisher is presumed dead.
Melbourne, Australia. A funeral is held for Miss Fisher at her mansion, involving her closest friends and colleagues, amongst them, her sometimes investigative partner, lovelorn English Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), who appears even more hurt when Miss Fisher literally drops in from the sky in a plane, alive and well. With Shirin having been returned safely to her uncle Sheikh Kahlil Abbas (Kal Naga), all seems perfectly peachy. Well, that’s until she tells him why she was imprisoned in the first place, with Shirin convinced that her village was slaughtered when she was young, and not killed by a natural dust storm as everybody thinks. After doing some digging, Phryne learns of an old story about a large gem that’s linked to Shirin’s past, which is buried in the enigmatic Crypt of Tears. And so, it’ll take the combined wits of Phryne Fisher and Jack Robinson to unravel its secrets before … well, something.
Just to make it clear, that was one of the most difficult plot summaries I’ve ever had to write. Why? Ask veteran Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries producer and writer Deb Cox, who seems to have insisted on overcomplicating this story in the attempt to pad it out to a feature. How this screenplay got a nomination for Best Feature Film Adaptation at the 2019 Australian Writers’ Guild AWGIE Awards is beyond me. I guess when there’s literally only one other in competition — Shaun Grant’s adapted screenplay of True History of the Kelly Gang — someone had to be set up to lose. There’s no point talking basic cause and effect plotting here, because the cause was ‘We want to make a movie,’ and the effect was ‘Putting me to sleep.’
Amongst the overdone plot threads, there’s the unnecessary McGuffin of the title, clearly designed to take things in a kind of Indiana Jones lite direction. This adventurous path could all work well enough, I suppose, and director Tony Tilse seems game in the fun opening sequence. Eventually, however, instead of accelerating the action, everything just slows down, the pacing almost grinding to a halt as we’re inundated with a number of superfluous plot points. Typical investigative scene — torches in the dark, scrambling for clues with shadowy papers in hand — are rendered with the urgency of folding the laundry while watching a BBC drama marathon. There’s no time to rush, I guess — the target audience will probably be watching this as a time-burning matinee, and the killer doesn’t seem that interested in killing again much, perhaps off somewhere pouring brandy and prepping a cigar.
If you’re not clear on the basic motivation into the mystery at hand, how can you participate? If you don’t understand what’s at stake, how can you feel the pressure to resolve the questions with the characters? And for goodness sake, if you can’t believe in the credibility of the ‘big reveal,’ how are you to feel fully satisfied with the journey? Murder-mysteries at their best are participatory and interactive; at worst, they feel like you’re watching people at a zoo — except they’re on the exhibit side of the glass and don’t know any tricks.
I’m going to be unfair and bring up last year’s cracking Knives Out (2019), which took the basic murder-mystery and went beyond that. It kinda spoiled us with its wonderful casting, snarky humor, and distinct characters, that it’s hard not to consider it against any new entry. It brought something new to a well-worn formula, and once it kicked off, it was great fun. Heck, let’s go back a bit further and bring up Kenneth Branagh’s solid old-fashioned Murder on the Orient Express (2017), with its grand production values and lush cinematography. You may not have enjoyed the story, but at least the cast and scenery were enticing enough. What is one to take from Miss Fisher’s latest tale?
I will say, with quite the history behind them now, the dynamics of the cast are well-oiled by this point. I’m thinking especially of the fan-favorite ‘Will They/ Won’t They?’ romantic pairing of Essie Davis, True History of the Kelly Gang (2020), and Nathan Page, Panic at Rock Island (2011), who seem to have a genuine friendship that extends to their characters. The movie is elevated whenever they’re together and could have done with more of their banter and playfulness. Izabella Yena does well in her feature film debut and makes for a solid dramatic counterweight to the otherwise lightweight proceedings. Everyone else frankly doesn’t get enough material to work with and don’t make much of an impression, outside of maybe Kal Naga, Out of the Ordinary (2014), whose Sheikh Kahlil Abbas feels underused. In addition, the locations, namely Morocco and the Fisher mansion, are quite lovely and add the most cinematic flavor to the experience. But really, that’s about it.
It genuinely brings me no pleasure to declare that Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears is a dead-end dud — a cinematic bore if you will. Considering how rare it is for Australian genre features to be made and distributed so widely, how often overlooked the upper-aged crowd are at the cinema, and how much demand there is for female-fronted productions (both on-screen and behind the camera), believe me when I say, I very desperately wanted to like this film. Alas, while fans have clearly enjoyed this and will continue to do so, already demanding more Miss Fisher feature adventures, for everyone else, I can only really recommend this if you’re an insufferable insomniac.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie