I'm a great fan of Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher novels. I love the Australian Roaring Twenties setting, the unconventional characters and the complex mysteries. So I was very much looking forward to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation television series but...
It's beautifully filmed, the costumes are stunning and the stories ring true. So what is my reservation? It's to do with casting of the main character. I like Essie Davis. I think she is a talented actress. She showed just how talented in the recent ABC series The Slap where she managed to make her character one of the more sympathetic among a dysfunctional group that I struggled to find a connection with. She certainly has the elegant look I'd expect of Phryne Fisher and carries off Twenties fashion beautifully. She is, in turn, glamorous, caring, witty, sexy and clever as Phryne should be.
So my criticism is not actually about Essie Davis but because I feel she has been let down by the scripting. I can forgive the slightly stilted language because it feels right for the period and even the messing about with various characters and relationships - that's inevitable when novels are translated to the screen - but for me the age related issues distract from an otherwise enjoyable series.
In the novels Phryne is a wealthy woman in her late twenties and she acts it. She acquires a unconventional group of employees (who quickly become devoted to her and with whom she shares a genuine friendship). All this means she acts on impulse and takes risks - and sometimes does foolhardy things to the distress of her maid. The problem with the television series, to my mind, is that, while Phryne does all these things which are compatible with an unconventional young woman in her twenties, the actress playing her is not in her twenties. She is a very beautiful 41 year old who looks as if she's in her mid thirties but has moments - and they are only moments - when she does look her age. The way she moves and speaks at times gives it away. As well the ABC did her no favours with one of the images in the beginning credits where she looks much older than she actually is and so draws attention to the age discrepancy.
As a result Phryne seems a mature woman who, at times, behaves in immature ways. It detracts from her intelligence and makes it harder to believe she is capable of solving the mysteries she gets involved with. It also changes the nature of her relationships particularly with her maid, Dot. For example, while it might make sense for a twenty something to announce that she's taking her maid with her for them to have fun together, it's less so when it's a mature woman. It's a pity because those relationships are a big part of what Phryne is.
For me, all this is enough to disrupt my belief in the character and story. It would have taken very little alteration to the script to accommodate the age difference and, considering the other liberties taken with the original which are many - some characters have vanished and new characters have been introduced along with new, and to my mind unnecessary, story lines - I doubt it would have mattered. The result would have a perfectly cast actress and a series that really captured the essence of novels.
There's an interesting discussion about the series at Hoyden About Town.