Monday, November 2, 2015

Essie Davis: Chameleon, Shapeshifter

Two completely different characters; one astounding actor

For the last few years, I’ve known Essie Davis only as the star of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Based on a series of novels by Kerry Greenwood, the Australian-produced show is broadcast here in the US on a variety of PBS stations. (For cord cutters, it’s also available through Acorn Media.)

I think the title is a bit cutesy and the plots are, unsurprisingly, often routine. But Miss Fisher is great to look at, sumptuously draped and furnished in 1920s dress and décor. It takes place mostly in the upper strata of Melbourne society, where “g’day mate” is rarely heard. No one plays Aussie Rules Football or cracks open a Foster’s. It’s typical of a well-woven British mystery. Once in a while, I think I might be wandering Midsomer County with Tom Barnaby.

But I know better, primarily because of Ms. Davis as the titular Miss Fisher: Sherlock Holmes as a wealthy flapper, fashion plate, and free-living feminist (or, more accurately for that era, suffragette). Like Mr. Holmes, Miss Fisher is less a character, more an ingenious cobbling of attributes, both representative of her time and highly appealing to ours. Next to her, Mae West looks a dowdy aunt; her detective’s eye make the Melbourne police look blind. And, finally, she’s a dead shot with her gold-plated revolver.

Miss Fisher is not a deep role (even with the traumatic past now mandatory for detective heroes). As any actor who’s played either Holmes orJames Bond can tell you, these parts can be frustrating and boring. They also need to be cast just right.

Miss Fisher gets it right with Essie Davis, a tall angular beauty with a perfect black bob, cheekbones you could ski down and huge panther eyes. She plays Phryne with an elegant strut, always dressed and wound up for adventure.

The show also provides her a well-matched suitor, a rough-barked police inspector played by Nathan Page. Their tense, romantic rapport puts me in mind of Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in Moonlighting, the rom-com mystery series from the 1980s.

My main point here is that Essie Davis is a terrific actress. As in great actress. For witness, I offer not her commendable work as Miss Fisher, but her extraordinary performance in one of the most highly praised films of 2014, The Babadook.

The Babadook is an intense and excellently made horror fable. Here, Ms. Davis plays the polar opposite of Miss Fisher--Amelia Vanek, a widow haunted by the gruesome death of her beloved husband in a traffic accident seven years before—the very night their son, Samuel, was born.

Since then, Amelia has become a ragged derelict sinking in a black sea, surrounded by endless fog. She’s all shaking bones as she stumbles around inside the blue-gray walls of her house, which are disturbingly blank and empty, like an imprisoning sky.

Her relationship with her son is dangerously needy. Together they ride towering waves of love, neglect and abuse. Samuel (well played by Noah Wiseman) is a weird kid, a terribly lonely boy, loud and impulsive, feared and disliked by both friends and family. Together, mother and son become entwined in their moldy isolation as they turn against each other.

One night, for bedtime reading, Samuel brings Amelia a book she doesn’t recall seeing on his shelf: The Babadook, a pop-up featuring a black-clad demon who peeks, waves and rises from its tomb-like pages to the murmured cadence of a creepy nursery rhyme.

This demon, who smells grief like a vampire smells blood, is soon released from its bound pages to slither in their lives, to strike again and again.

The Babadook is beautifully crafted, a disturbing claustrophobic fable about undying grief. Writer-director Jennifer Kent has created a beautifully crafted horror show of atmosphere and style with hardly a drop of onscreen blood. It stands with my favorite horror shows of the 2000s, alongside Session 9, the American version of The Ring and the original The Returned.

Essie Davis ties it all together with her blistering performance as Amelia. Like Julie Harris as Eleanor in 1963’s The Haunting, Davis brings a fragile deer-like quality to Amelia, a woman who wears her nerves on the outside, where they’re plucked upon by the raging ghost of grief.

Loneliness and vulnerability are two of horror’s best and most reliable themes. Amelia is a classic player. Davis plunges to the center of her skull and surfaces with its harrowing contents. She is simply riveting.

It takes guts and talent to portray someone like Amelia with such unbridled feeling. Essie Davis, a major-award winner for other performances, has plenty of both. That she makes Amelia completely unrecognizable from her work as light-footed Phryne Fisher is about the highest compliment I can think of. The way she's going, she could be as big a star as her fellow Tasmanian, Errol Flynn. You can call me a fan.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

(Edited 11/2/15; the actor Nathan Page was accidentally transcribed as "Nathan Hunt.")

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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