Secret City: First Look review

Brad Newsome

30/05/2016

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This ambitious Australian conspiracy thriller might end up being more popcorn-muncher than nail-biter, but it’s definitely worth checking out tonight’s double-episode premiere. Canberra has certainly never looked so malignant in the visual sense.

It’s night-time and Parliament House squats like a Lovecraftian horror on the hill as a young man flees across a bridge. Pursued by shadowy figures, he swallows a sim card before leaping into Lake Burley Griffin. Next morning his body comes to the attention of the police – and to that of newspaper reporter Harriet Dunkley (Anna Torv) – and we’re off.
Harriet (“Harry” to her friends) is one of those super-powered journos who exist mainly in fiction. Not only is she impeccably connected, able to stroll in and out of cabinet ministers’ offices at will, possessed of the happy knack of having juicy info drop in her lap at opportune times, and able to maintain the moral high ground while committing egregious breaches of ethics and the law, but she also has a kind of preternatural charm that can, say, lead a cop who catches her trespassing in a morgue to take her to gawk at the very body she wants to see.

Oh, and she also has a hunky uni-student toyboy (Benedict Samuel), who comes in handy when she feels like a spot of horizontal recreation or needs the lowdown on computer science. Harry’s bete noire is the Labor government’s defence minister, Mal Paxton (Dan Wyllie), whose apparent pro-Chinese sympathies put him at odds with the PM (Alan Dale) and the party’s right-wing powerbroker (the marvellous Jacki Weaver).

Indeed, Paxton’s very loyalty to Australia is in question. How is he connected to all those scary types from the Chinese embassy? And what does this all have to do with the Australian political activist (Alice Chaston) who set herself on fire in Beijing and subsequently disappeared from Chinese custody? Perhaps Harry’s ex-husband, transgendered intelligence agency type Kim Gordon (Damon Herriman) might be able to supply some information.

The likes of Alex Dimitriades, Sacha Horler, Marcus Graham, Miranda Tapsell and Meki Phifer will no doubt chip in too. Secret City — which is based on not one but two novels by political journalists Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann – has an enormous amount going on plotwise, though not all of it is immediately immersive or convincing.

That said, there’s more than enough of interest to drag viewers back again next week.