In this nostalgia-saturated cultural landscape, it’s inevitable that any beloved series will seem ripe for an update. The question then becomes: How do you do it authentically without becoming the spinoff that fans discuss with a bunch of mumbled caveats along the lines of “trust me, the original was better.” (Cough, cough, “Star Wars Episodes 1-3,” looking at you.)
Australian actress Geraldine Hakewill found herself in this very place when she won the titular role in “Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries,” the follow-up to “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.” “Miss Fisher,” set in 1920s Melbourne, debuted in 2012 in Australia and starred Essie Davis as a glamorous private detective who balanced her love of the finer things in life with solving crimes. Thanks to airings on Acorn TV, Netflix and PBS, it has gained a cult following – enough of one that in 2017 a Kickstarter to make a Miss Fisher movie raised over half a million dollars. (Sure enough, “Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears” will debut this fall on Acorn TV.)
“Ms. Fisher,” by contrast, is set in 1964, with Hakewill playing the niece of the original Phryne Fisher. The trappings are the same: great house, fast car, handsome will-they-or-won’t-they cop that’s boyfriend-adjacent, gorgeous clothes. With the bones of the original surrounding her, Hakewill wanted to make Peregrine Fisher her own.
“She’s such a ballsy, delightful, spontaneous kind of person,” she said. “There’s always the anxiety that because it’s a companion piece to such a loved show that people are going to be disappointed, or have very strong opinions about what they wanted it to be. I hope that we’ve made something that’s captured the spirit of the original but isn’t trying to replace it in any way.”
Hakewill, 31, who can also be seen in “Wanted,” available on Netflix, says that Davis’ portrayal of Phryne Fisher was her textbook on how to accomplish the procedural elements required of every television mystery – the narrative patter that comes as the case winds up.
“I learned how effortless Essie made it look,” Hakewill said. “Her role is deceptively difficult because she’s often giving a lot of exposition in her dialogue, and at the end of the piece you’re telling the murderer how they did it and why they did it and that’s kind of an unnatural thing to do – because someone who murders someone knows why they did it. Obviously you have to let the audience into that, so you’re monologuing at somebody. Making that look natural can be quite difficult, and she does it so well.”
Hakewill also nails it with flair, and she manages another trick over the course of the four feature-length episodes: she gives Peregrine significant emotional character development. She starts out in the first episode as pretty much the stereotype beauty-school dropout, heading from a lonely life in a trailer in a small, Australian beach town to Melbourne, where’s she’s informed of her inheritance from Phryne’s estate. By the fourth episode, she’s an established career woman, confident in her ability as a private detective, with a supportive group of friends.
The change is revealed in Hakewill’s attitude and composure – as well as her clothes, which become more polished as they evolve from short-shorts to Jackie Onassis-inspired dresses as the episodes proceed. “She wasn’t having these massive transformations, but she was very much of her age in that era, making fashion choices but also doing her job,” says costume designer Maria Pattison. “[Peregrine] was practical, and she wasn’t just going in Phryne’s world and taking advantage of inheriting all this cash. We wanted her to be her rather than take on Phryne’s identity too much.”
All of this makes Peregrine’s arc very satisfying – and it makes “Ms. Fisher” stand alone and above any comparisons to the original series.
“I really enjoyed watching it, and usually I don’t like watching myself,” Hakewill said. “It’s very difficult. But I got lost in the world of it – and that’s always a good sign that something’s working – when I forget that it’s me doing it.”