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Essie Davis: On Playing A Sexually Liberated 'Superhero' Without Apology

A new hat can cheer even an experienced actress, says Essie Davis.
A new hat can cheer even an experienced actress, says Essie Davis.

In the first-ever episode of the Australian series Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, the central figure, Phryne Fisher, has to explain to her young, extremely Catholic new maid Dot what exactly is in the round, plastic case that Dot is holding in her hands. "Family planning," she says casually.

Phryne (pronounced FRY-nee) is an impeccably bobbed amateur detective in Melbourne during a time when a lady could still reasonably wear a feather boa but could already respectably wear pants. Acorn.tv, a subscription streaming site that carries primarily British and Australian television, has been rolling out the second series of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries one episode per week, and for now, that's the only place you can get the entire run of the show if you're a scruffy American. (The first series is available on Netflix and has been airing on some PBS stations; the second will likely follow eventually.) On Monday, Acorn releases the second-series finale.

Being sexually independent is not Phryne's only distinguishing characteristic: she's also clever, sometimes inscrutable, funny and fiercely loyal. She speaks several languages. She carries a literal golden gun. But the series does extravagantly reintroduce the overt sexuality that was regularly part of the films of the 1920s and 1930s, but vanishes mysteriously from most contemporary films about the 1920s and 1930s, as if it's too much to imagine that sex for pleasure existed in parents' and grandparents' lives.

Phryne has a bubbling, ambiguous romantic attachment to the breathtakingly dashing but emotionally reserved Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, played by Nathan Page. But in stark contrast to most will-they-or-won't-they television pairings, her attachment to Jack is not treated as ethically superior to the casual sex she's having. Her feelings for Jack don't motivate Phryne to wait around, staring at the ceiling until they manage to get together. While carrying on this flirtation that has clear and significant emotional weight, she's happily had any number of lovers over the course of the series, some of whom have turned out to be very bad indeed, and one of whom she sent off with her true best wishes, directly from her bed into a promising marriage.

Essie Davis plays Phryne Fisher, a beautifully attired detective in 1920s Melbourne.
Ben King / Acorn.TV
Essie Davis plays Phryne Fisher, a beautifully attired detective in 1920s Melbourne.

This doesn't sit right with everyone, which a writer for Jezebel noticed while browsing the Netflix comments. What resulted was a post by Rebecca Rose called, "Netflix Reviewers Think Your Lady Detectives Are Slutty Sluts." The post provoked a gleeful celebration of Phryne's great and sexy life by her fans in the comments, and quite a few people who hadn't watched the show before took the position that these reviewers – the ones who called her a tramp – were making it sound like a pretty good show.

And who observed these discussions with no small amount of amusement? Essie Davis, the actress who's been playing Phryne for two years, and who may not share Phryne's personal or professional habits, but shared her wicked cackle with me on the phone earlier this year.

"I was sent the link to Jezebel," she says of the discussion about Phryne being, as she puts it, a "hussy." "And I just thought it was fantastic that the reactions towards the outrage were so powerful and outspoken. And that so many people who, on the Jezebel site, were like, 'Right, well, if that's what everyone's saying about it, I'm watching it.'"

Other than Samantha on Sex And The City, Davis couldn't think of a woman on American television quite like Phryne in terms of her genuinely happily asserted sexual agency any more than I could, and we couldn't think of many women like Phryne anywhere. "Phryne's a superhero, really," she says. "She's the woman that many women would like to be. Because she is so independent and has no dependency upon men, just loves them. And as long as they don't try and rule her, she'll enjoy every bit of them."

That lack of dependency is a part of Phryne's makeup: Davis days she was born into poverty but later inherited wealth, meaning that now, she knows the significance of having her own house, her own car, her own money. "As well as being able to speak a million languages and shoot a gun and drive a fast car and throw a dagger and climb a building."

But don't imagine a detached party girl sipping booze with her pals until all hours: Phryne is very much a family lady, despite being unmarried. She adopts a daughter and surrounds herself with a house full of people who are officially part of her staff but make up quite a happy and devoted clan: her assistant, Dot (who's in chaste, shy love with Jack's deputy); her domestic chief of staff, whose name is actually Mr. Butler; and her two handymen/drivers/assistant sleuths, Cec and Bert.

Of course, this is a period piece, and it's only right that in addition to being transgressive and, as Davis says, "highly intelligent," Phryne is also gorgeously decked out at all times. She swans about in her boas and robes and gowns and softly cut pants, with a sense of style that's luscious and sometimes witty. (In fact, Phryne, more than perhaps any woman on American television, calls to mind the moment in Singin' In the Rain in which a despairing young woman says of silent film star Lina Lamont, "She's so refined, I think I'll kill myself.") The show's costume designer, Marion Boyce, recently took home an AACTA Award for television costume design, Australia's highest, and Davis isn't surprised.

"I'm very, very, very lucky to have Marion Boyce designing for me, and you know, Phryne's obviously wealthy and loves clothes, and all of the clothing budget is spent on Phryne." She laughs, and I do, too. "I think Jack's got two suits, and poor Cec and Bert have got the same suit on every week." Davis says the collaboration with Boyce is fundamental, and comes from a variety of sources.

"Marion's eye for detail is immaculate, and she has ... she has pieces, buttons, buckles, furs from the period. People are now donating items to the show because they want to see them on the screen. She's cut some cloths that she's had for 20 or 30 years, she's cut on my behalf, and let me wear her own personal jewelry that she's gathered from around the world, and Venice, and ... gifts from her own family to her. And she has an incredible collection of beautiful things, and has found Phryne some amazing things. And I am so lucky that every new block, I get one or two fabulous new coats and an amazing hat, and oh my God, pair of shoes. And each world that we go into, they're very strikingly different outfits."

It's not just the clothing itself, either. Sometimes, it takes creative work just to wear it right. "We work really well together," Davis says. "Marion will come up with some amazing design and bring it in, and I'll be like, 'How do you wear this?' And she'll go, 'Well, try it out.' And I'll pick up the tail of some ridiculously long coat and throw it around my arm, and she'll go, 'Terrific!'"

And with all the gowns and feathers and hats that have crossed her path, what's Essie Davis' favorite item of clothing Phryne has ever worn? "I do have a favorite," she acknowledges. "Because I love the simplicity and the extraordinary detail of this beautiful black satin dressing gown that is in chinois embroidery, and on the back of it, are these two embroidered fighting cocks. And I think it is the most perfectly tongue-in-cheek piece of costume, and I love putting it on, 'cause I love the idea that there are fighting cocks." And then she cackles.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.