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Mystery Road TV review: acclaimed neo-noir transitions to the small screen in excellent ABC series

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Director Rachel Perkins’ six-part ABC TV series Mystery Road is the third instalment in the titular franchise, following two hardboiled movies from filmmaker Ivan Sen and star Aaron Pedersen – including the terrific, big thinking neo-noir/western Goldstone. Among Mystery Road’s many virtues is a gravitas-weeping performance from Pedersen as outback detective Jay Swan, the actor channelling ghosts of gumshoes past: Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, but with jeans, cowboy boots and an Akubra.

With a new director and a television format, Swan’s venture to the small screen doesn’t mark a reduction in scope. The historically revisionist Goldstone may have had more impact, viewing the Gold Rush as a toxic foundation for modern Australia, reflected in self-seeking mining companies and purchasable governments. But Perkins’ slow (or at least slower) burn also packs a punch, presented in the style of a five-plus hour film.

The director and her producers, David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin, address the question: how can you possibly match the ground-rattling impact of Pederson’s performance? And the answer is: you fly in Judy Davis. The casting of the veteran actor (in recent years so good in The Dressmaker) as weary tough-as-nails cop Emma brings Mystery Road’s script (written by Michaeley O’Brien, Steven McGregor, Kodie Bedford and Tim Lee) more in line with the conventional, gender-pairing TV detective show.

To say this series is a cut above the average TV detective show would constitute rather faint praise.

Mark Wareham’s cinematography, however, is anything but stock-standard. The first episode begins in exquisitely cinematic style, capturing an abandoned ute beneath a stunning starry night sky. A close-up timelapse image shows the vehicle’s petrol gauge flick to empty and its lights switch off; the first clues in a plotline sprinkled with small reveals and red herrings. The opening minutes juggle sweeping aerial shots and close to the ground images inches from the dirt and dust.

Perkins returns to this juxtaposition throughout the series: visions of the ground contrasted with visions of the sky. Everything in between consists of human behaviour, the vagaries of which, consistent with previous Mystery Road instalments, involve venturing into dark places. Swan arrives in the remote town of Patterson – persona non grata, as usual – to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two young farmhands.

“You’re that bloke down south, aren’t ya? One who did away with those bikies a while ago?” doofus local cop Ryan Muller asks Swan. Muller marks a skilfully unlikeable portrayal from actor Anthony Hayes, who has several in his oeuvre – including a gun-toting hick in the recent zombie movie Cargo.

Early in Mystery Road there is mention of something to do with the water, which in a noir context invariably evokes memories of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The show’s sprawling storyline dabbles in disappearances, drugs, gangs, family secrets and various acts of jiggery-pokery.

There is perhaps one too many ‘this time it’s personal’ twists; the land may be vast and sprawling but boy, the human networks are close-knit. Swan’s daughter Crystal (Madeleine Madden, recently in Picnic at Hanging Rock) gets mixed up in her father’s investigations, forcing him to juggle parental and professional duties. Meanwhile, property significant to the case is owned by Emma’s brother Tony (Colin Friels) who is rather unhelpful. As is the town lawyer Travis (John Waters), who happens to be Emma’s ex-husband.

The TV series is more performance-focused than the films. It is not a coincidence that Perkins is more of an actor’s director than Sen, who is more cinematic – obsessively so, given his hyphenate approach to filmmaking (in addition to directing his films he also writes, produces, shoots, scores and edits them). Since her fine, emotionally rich debut feature – the 1998 family drama Radiance – Perkins has crafted visually engaging work, but is more interested in the terrain of a human face than the shape and flow of land.

After two films and six television episodes, there’s a feeling that Mystery Road might have barely begun.

In Mystery Road there are too many performances to do justice to in the space of this review. Wayne Blair (who is also a director; his work as a filmmaker includes The Sapphires and TV’s Cleverman) is a highlight in a difficult, downcast role as a convicted sex offender, while Madeleine Madden eschews cliche (the youth-run-amok character) by painting her performance with thrillingly real brush strokes. There are smaller, high calibre supporting turns from Deborah Mailman, Ernie Dingo, Tasma Walton, John Waters and Meyne Wyatt, among others.

The Mystery Road brand continues to roll out a dream team assembly line of Australian actors. In addition to Pedersen, Davis, Mailman, Blair, Friels and others mentioned here, there’s the cast from the two films – which include Jacki Weaver, David Wenham, David Gulpilil, Jack Thompson, Jack Charles, Tom E. Lewis and Ryan Kwanten. A blokey line-up, but it’s a blokey genre.

Goldstone both relied upon and transcended its genre elements in service of bigger messages and a polemical agenda. In Perkins’ hands, the drama is more intimate and less incendiary. There is greater room for it to breathe, with fewer button-pushing messages to contemplate. To say this series is a cut above the average TV detective show would constitute rather faint praise. It concludes in the best possible way, in the sense that, after two films and six television episodes, there’s a feeling that Mystery Road might have barely begun.

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23 responses to “Mystery Road TV review: acclaimed neo-noir transitions to the small screen in excellent ABC series

  1. I found the series very compelling and intriguing. My sister and I were quite disappointed when the last episode finished as we were left very much wanting for more. I thought there was a fantastic cast, great cinematography that complimented the messages and the flow of the story. Eagerly waiting for the next installment in this story (hopefully there is one!). This review matched my thoughts on the series. Great work Australia lots of talent going to good use!

  2. I watched it and thoroughly enjoyed it. Having lived remotely for many years I suppose I can relate to some of the characters, the attitudes, language and the difference between the latte sippers of Sydney and the beer drinkers in outback regions. Scenery stunning. People who jump on their high horse and deride the fact that it featured drugs, sex abuse and grog need to get out into the real world. Hope there is more to come.

  3. Have I missed an episode, First episode sceeed on 3rd, next episode screened on 10th. In th menwhilw his wife has showed up, the bloke who spent time in gaol has spoken out and quite a few other things have happened which was not screened.. I watched the first series with anticipation for this series, but there is no follow on.

  4. I was so enthralled after the first episode I binge watched the rest on iview. (There was no way I could have waited the whole 6 weeks watching only on Sunday nights). I found deep, rich layering of characters and story, superbly acted and directed with outstanding cinematography and use of soundtrack. An amazing story with so many threads that kept me totally absorbed. It also boasts a incredible cast of both seasoned veterans and up-and-comings. The landscapes are spectacular and make me want to jump in the car and head outback right now! (We truly are bloody lucky to live in such a gorgeous country!). In summary, an absolute world class production, the best series I’ve seen on TV this year. I can’t speak highly enough of “Mystery Road”. Well done to ABC and ALL involved. It deserves to be seen by a massive Australian audience and hopefully be sold to all world markets.

  5. Costume person who designed Judy Davis’s look… cudos!
    I love every minute she’s on screen!

    Visuals also excellent!

    Acting, other than the big names? Awful.
    Peterson is eye candy but can’t do any nuance. Lucky to be cast.

  6. Boring and tedious. Judy Davis looks ridiculous and Arron Peterson great actor that he is looks two dimensional. Lots of glaring and growling at each other and looking tough with guns all over the place including sidearms worn like gunslingers. A banal attempt at portraying today’s Australia. Compare with Killing Eve – that’s how you do something original and entertains.

  7. The plot, cinematography, setting and overall delivery is excellent and convincing. Judy Davis’ method acting however is stylised and dated. Sadly, rather than representing a world weary police sergeant she simply looks and sounds old and an unlikely appointment for the location in this day and age.

    1. But oh so dreary. Don’t people talk to each other in more than one sentence in the outer reaches of Oz? Turgid.

  8. See, I told you it would be the standard glum-a-thon. They managed to fit child abuse and hard drugs into the first episode. And as predicted, it only took 47 minutes before people started calling each other “pr*cks.”

    I’m looking forward to future episodes, where no doubt there will be alcoholism, suicide and prostitution. Go Screen Australia!

    On the plus side, the cinematography is superb. Credit where credit is due.

  9. Tried to spread it over too long Too many side tracks to the point of boredom My wife went to sleep I just stuck it out. Most of the Aborigines I saw in Kuninurra were rough sleepers who’d came into town for the grog Is what that goes on in a remote town really interesting? To me a waste of a great cast.
    Tony

  10. Well done Luke Buckmaster, you have marvelously incapsulated this superb series in your critique and had me anxiously waiting for it to begin, worried that maybe you had over promised. However, last night I watched the first two episodes enthralled with the quality of the cinematography, cast and storyline, reasured it delivers all as expected. I can’t wait for the next episode. Thanks to the ABC for a most enjoyable tv experience.

  11. Excellent review and, after watching the first 2 installments, spot on. Worried initially that Davis did not seem right for the part, but her consummate acting skills soon had me engrossed. The whole cast is excellent, superb photography.
    This is such quality compared to some of the expensive, over produced nafness coming from the streaming services lately.
    Hope you are right, that Mystery Road may have a lot more to offer.

  12. Gotta say, I mainly agree with BdF. The series she mentioned were appalling adaptations of the orginals, in many cases, greeted with too much fanfare and over-generous reviews.

    Having said that, this looks rather interesting. I’ll give it a go.

  13. What a depressing set of comments by Billy the Fish. Have a whinge why don’t you! Why assume a series will be terrible when the two dramas that precede it were of high quality and involve a number of the same personnel. I’ll reserve judgement till I’ve seen it.

  14. A superb review, Luke…it’s rare that the context of a TV drama or film, for that matter, is revealed in all of it’s complexity…Bravo!

  15. I hope this is better than the recent crop of Oz high-end TV shows (Harrow, Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Safe Harbour, etc), all of which were terrible.

    So tell me, does it have the compulsory grim subject matter that infests all Australian film and TV – drugs, alcoholism, child abuse, domestic violence, petrol sniffing, suicide, racism, prostitution, etc? I bet they’ve managed to shoehorn all of those things into the show.

    OK, who wants to have a bet with me? There’s the bet – how long until some bogan says “Mate, yer a f*cken pr*ck”? My guess is it will happen in the first episode.

    1. First 30 mins plus, it’s sent my partner to bed in disgust/disappointed….Australia you can do better than this.

  16. The trailers from the ABC have been tantalising me forever (it seems) and now at last – your review Luke pretty much as I had believed it MUST be! Come on “Mystery Road”!

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