Miss Fisher’s Distinctive Brand of Superheroism

As Miss Fisher moves from the TV to feature film format, we take the opportunity to chat with Essie Davis and producers Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger about what makes Phryne so damn inspirational.

Essie Davis in Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears
Photo: Every Cloud Productions

When Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries launched in 2012, the period murder mystery show wasn’t necessarily looking for an international audience, let alone one as massive and dedicated as it would find. An Australian TV series based on a series of historical mysteries by Australian author Kerry Greenwood, the Miss Fisher TV show blew up in the United States when it became available on Netflix in September 2014 (it left Netflix in 2019, and is now available in its entirety on Acorn TV). Six years later, the franchise debuts its first feature feature film, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, partially funded by fans from around the world.

“[Producer Deb Cox and I] were actually talking about what the links were between the North American audience and the Australian audience who particularly seem to love Phryne,” says producer Fiona Eagger when we speak on the phone about the new film, now available to stream on Acorn TV. “I think the popularity of the books, the series, and now, hopefully, the film—fingers crossed—is I think they love the character of Phryne Fisher. I think there’s something about her … She’s got a big heart. She’s glamorous. She’s the cleverest person in the work room. She wears beautiful frocks. So there’s something very aspirational about that character.”

The joie de vivre inherent in Phryne’s character is inextricable from the joie de vivre of the actress who plays her: Essie Davis who, if you’re not yet a Miss Fisher fan, you may recognize the actress from her turn on Game of Thrones or her starring appearance in 2014 horror film The Babadook. As Lady Detective Fisher, Davis flits between silly and serious, raucous and righteous, empathetic and ebullient—all while creating a logic to this character that makes her a woman it’s impossible not to admire. If you don’t want to be Phryne, you want to be Phryne’s friend.

When asked what makes Phryne Fisher engaging to so many fans, Davis has a long list of what makes the character so inspirational: Born into poverty but inheriting great wealth, Phryne uses the power and privilege she gained to fight for the underdog (often in the form of a solving a murder mystery). She was an ambulance officer in WWI; knows multiple languages; and knows how to fly a plane, drive a race car, and scale a building in the dead of night.

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“She knows how to share her wealth generously, but also to look after herself in an independent way,” says Davis. “She loves her body. She loves men, she loves women—or, you know, fight for women’s rights. She fights for male and female underdogs. She stands for social justice, but she does it all with joy. She’s naughty, she’s brave. She’s kind of like a superhero in her level of bravery and she knows how to fit into the establishment, but also how to stand up to the establishment when she knows the rules should be broken. And she does it with such vivacity, and joy, and cleverness that I think it’s kind of infectious.”

Phryne Fisher is a superhero. She may technically be a mere mortal who must obey the laws of physics like the rest of us, but one gets the sense that, should the situation call for it, she could probably flirt her way out of having to follow the fine print when it comes to things like matter and energy. Phryne’s superpowers may include financial privilege and a never-ending zest for life, they also extend into the more traditional of superhero attributes. Because Phryne Fisher is also an action star. In Crypt of Tears, we see her run atop a moving train with ease—just another day in the life for Phryne Fisher.

“I love doing [the action scenes],” says Davis. “I love that climbing, scaling buildings and driving cars, and sneaking up out the rooftops. I love that so much.”

Fans love it, too. It’s particularly exciting to see a middle-aged woman do the kinds of cinematic feats we’ve long seen associated with men of all ages—from Sherlock Holmes to Indiana Jones to James Bond—but very rarely see women over the age of 35 get to engage in.

“It’s interesting because in the books, the character is younger,” says Cox, who wrote the script for Crypt of Tears. “She’s the age of the century. She’s 28 in 1928 and we span til 29. But it was so difficult when we were looking at casting that role. A 28-year-old woman in 1928 was not the same as a 28-year-old woman now. Whatever class she was, she’d lived nearly half her life and had a lot of experience under her belt. So when we started auditioning younger women, they just didn’t have those qualities that are in Phryne Fisher.”

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Then, the producers found Davis, who they say “blitzed” the competition.

“When we found her, we consulted with Kerry Greenwood—she’s always been our muse,” recounts Cox. “We keep going back to her and we said, ‘Look, we’re a little bit concerned. She’s older than the character, but she feels right.’ And Kerry anointed us that she is perfect. So, we were deliberately looking for those qualities of maturity. And they seem to be inspiring very young women as well. It doesn’t seem to be a barrier.”

It’s not a barrier. Woman and men of all ages can relate to and be inspired by Phryne Fisher not in spite of her age, but, in part, because of it. It’s hard to imagine Miss Fisher taking off in the same way with a different actress in the main role. This is why studio suggestions (via The Sydney Morning Herald) that the title character be replaced with a younger, more famous actress—like Birds of Prey star Margot Robbie—when the franchise made the jump from the small to big screen is so hard to fathom for anyone who has actually seen the series. Robbie is a wonderful actress, but you would lose something essential about this story with a different, younger actress in the role.

“I think it is interesting about that representation on screen of what happens when women are of a certain age and how are they represented,” says Eagger when we discuss the topic. “Then, they become the mother or the grandmother or the sidekick. But, with Phryne, to have a woman that has lived life, of a certain age on screen has been very aspirational for people because there’s just not enough of them. So it’s making visible the invisible and actually sort of saying, ‘If you’re over 35, you’re not out. You can still have a good time and you can drive a fast car and you can save yourself. And you can be the smartest person in the room,’ and all of these things, which I think being women of a certain age ourselves, we think is very true.”

As she is, Phryne Fisher has inspired people the world over.

“I think are kind of on this spectrum from the really die hard fans to people who just love murder mysteries and the glamor of it,” reflects Cox, “but when you go to the far end of that spectrum and you discover the fans who are incredibly committed and have traveled across the world to see the movie, what we get from them I think is so moving.”

Cox gives a specific example, of which she no doubt has many: “There was a young woman from Helsinki who we met at one of our previous screenings and she said, ‘Miss Fisher made me brave.’ And she was very emotional about that and that’s what it meant to her. It was so gratifying for us to realize that she does that. And a responsibility to realize that she has a big impact on some people.”

Miss Fisher‘s brand of inspiration never feels like work. While Phryne’s world may be structured around murder, it doesn’t feel like a dangerous place. It’s cozy. It’s safe. It’s familiar. It’s a place where problems are solved (by Miss Fisher), and someone (Miss Fisher) is always around to help those who need it. As the real world hunkers down for an undefined period of social distancing, it’s a flavor of escapism we may need now more than ever.

“There’s these romp, there’s this naughty and sexy frisson that is quite joyous to be, to watch, and to escape into, and to think, ‘Oh my God, she can do that, I can do it too,'” says Davis. “I think [Phryne Fisher]’s an inspirational for women and men of all generations, as well as a beautiful piece of escapism to just settle down and nestle into for a laugh.”

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears is now available to stream on Acorn TV.