She is James Bond in T-bar heels, a saucy feminist superhero a century ahead of her time. Sporting her glamorous drop-waist getups, she can dance a tango, fly a Tiger Moth, or surf a speeding train carriage – all without upsetting a strand of her signature black bob. Not only that, the whip-smart lady detective leaves a trail of smitten lovers in her wake. Who wouldn’t want to be Phryne Fisher?
Essie Davis has won fans all over the world playing the 1920s Melbourne super-sleuth in the ABC TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Based on Kerry Greenwood’s bestselling books, the show premiered in 2012 and had more than 1 million Australians tuning in each week, before it spread to 180 countries and garnered a cult following in the US and UK.
Now, four years after the final TV episode, Essie has donned the cloche hats again for the big-screen follow-up, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, filmed partly in Morocco.
“The last time we saw her she was getting in an airplane to fly her dad home [to England] and I think it needed an international story,” says Essie. “You can’t have a really good murder mystery without it taking longer to solve and having a few more potential culprits.”
The pistol-packing Phryne (pronounced fry-knee) is still scaling buildings and uncovering injustices, but this time it’s in jazz-age London and British Palestine. Fans were so keen to see Miss Fisher’s derring-do go global, in fact, that they raised nearly $1 million of the film’s budget in Australia’s most successful crowdfunding campaign ever.
As far-flung as Brazil and Scandinavia, Miss Fisher fanatics routinely write to Essie to credit the unflappable detective with hauling them out of depression. “I’ve had so many fans say that Phryne saved their life,” says Essie. “She made them think, I don’t have to be a victim – life is worth living. Women are inspired by her naughtiness and outrageousness to just be themselves – not necessarily to break into buildings, but to speak out.”
At today’s photo shoot, the Tasmanian actor seems to be channelling some of Miss Fisher’s insouciance. Essie pulls on a metallic trench coat and suddenly oozes espionage cool. “Outfits are like characters, really, aren’t they?” she says.
On location at an art-deco cinema in Melbourne, the stylist shows her outfit options and Essie culls them in record speed: one jumpsuit is too ABBA, a black-and-white ensemble too David Jones, and it’s a flat-out no to a salmon pantsuit: “It’ll look terrible on me.”
Once the camera starts clicking and a leaf blower-cum-wind machine is aimed at her face, Essie seems caught in a tug-of-war between her natural theatricality and the self-consciousness that comes with posing in front of a crowd. Wearing a black strapless tulle confection, she spontaneously showers herself with popcorn and tiptoes across the cinema seats, before letting rip one of her trademark machine-gun laughs: “I don’t know what I’m doing!” she cries. “This is so stupid!”
By outfit number two, she’s calling for a calming glass of champagne – “I’m trying to get out of my own head.” Swathed in gold satin, she looks rather prophetically like an Oscar statuette. In her 40s – a time when decent female roles supposedly dry up – Essie has nailed a string of disparate screen parts: as thespian Lady Crane in pop-culture phenomenon Game of Thrones, Catholic nun Iphigenia in the Foxtel drama Lambs of God (for which she recently received an AACTA nod) and crime matriarch Ellen Kelly in the film True History of the Kelly Gang (directed by her husband, Justin Kurzel).
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