Secret City: Torv, Weaver, Wyllie, Herriman in Canberra spy thriller

Graeme Blundell

04/06/2016

Following the 9/11 terror attacks the conspiracy genre came in from the cold — at least in the US. Highly suspicious of our political institutions, dark conspiratorial visions became a part of mainstream viewing with shows such as 24, State of Play, Prison Break, Burn Notice, NCIS, House of Cards and Homeland.

Our local storytellers seemed to have little interest in protagonists who stumble into conspiracies and personal jeopardy.

But trawl the net and there are certainly countless possible storylines yet to be picked up by enterprising producers. Among them, writer David Tormsen on website Listverse mentions some obvious development possibilities: from Martin Bryant, to Schapelle Corby and, more recently, the Lindt cafe siege.

The ABC gave us The Code last year from the stunningly clever creator Shelley Birse, and her concerns were right on the button: state surveillance, the role of internet hackers and the corrosive effects of political spin.

More than that, Birse developed a sprawling political cover-up story that, like all good shows of this manner, unfurled through the agreeable viewfinder of a dynamic and engaging series of human relationships.

The same is true of Secret City, the much anticipated six-part political thriller developed by Matchbox Pictures for Foxtel’s Showcase channel, written by Greg Waters, Belinda Chayko and Matt Cameron. It’s directed by the stellar Emma Freeman (Hawke), her work acutely unobtrusive but always distinguished by aesthetic and psychological consistency.

And what a cast she and her producers have assembled: Anna Torv, Jackie Weaver, Dan Wyllie, Alex Dimitriades, Damon Herriman, Alan Dale, Miranda Tapsell and Marcus Graham head a large and rather splendid ensemble.

All of them shine with that recognisable feeling that they are working for a director who not only understands them but appreciates them.

Freeman is one of the best directors we have. Here she works with her principals to create controlled naturalistic surfaces that in each scene also evoke ambiguous inner states — it’s a lovely dialectic.

The series is “inspired by” the best-selling novels by Canberra journalists Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis, The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code, and comes with the tag line, “A world of secrets, lies, murder and betrayal … beneath the placid facade of Canberra.”

The national capital of popular myth has long been a centre of alcoholism and adultery (both suburban and political) and now both The Code, which juxtaposed the stark but beautiful angles of Canberra with the organic earthiness of the outback to great effect, and Secret City establish the place as an irresistible setting for murder and international intrigue, as well as the more familiar shabby deals and divided loyalties, lies and opportunism.

The arc of the story establishes itself economically. When idealistic student Sabine Hobbs sets herself alight in a Beijing market, she starts a sequence of happenings that will jam Australia between the US and China as they move towards war. Out for an early morning scull political journalist Harriet Dunkley (Anna Torv) sees the gutted body of a young man washed up on the lake shore, and as she follows the body to the morgue she begins to suspect a conspiracy. As she discovers the 24-year-old corpse has no online presence, no digital footprint in fact, it becomes quickly apparent that she is under surveillance, her calls monitored.

Her newspaper thinks she’s tilting at another windmill — she believes her nemesis, defence minister Mal Paxton (Dan Wyllie), a maverick she’s previously failed to nail, is somehow implicated — the police stonewall, her government sources fall silent and a senior contact within Australian intelligence firmly warns her off.

But Dunkley discovers a link between Hobbs and the dead boy and determines that, whatever the personal or professional cost, she must pursue the story.

It won’t be easy for the crusading Dunkley. Government ministers are trained manipulators with hidden loyalties. Intelligence agencies are proudly impenetrable and foreign embassies follow their own rules unconcerned by Australian media. (Uhlman says in the production notes that there are more spies, both declared and undeclared, in Canberra than anywhere in Australia.)

What Freeman and her writers give us is an edge-of-your-seat portrayal of political skulduggery, subterfuge, spy craft and murder that’s ominously prescient in this age of terror.

The dialogue is tight. The characters speak nice, taut lines within their limits, and those limits are cleverly conceived and heightened by moments of mordant, hard-boiled humour. (When Dunkley surprises her boss extracting hairs from his large nostrils she says, “Don’t let the Greens catch you — you know they what they think about old-growth forests.”)

Torv carries much of the action with her customary assuredness. She was terrific in J.J Abrams’ Fringe a few years ago, starring as FBI agent Olivia Dunham, part of the team called in when an international flight lands at Boston’s Logan Airport on autopilot, full of viscous, glutinous corpses. It was a startling new slant on activity at the fringes of science and the paranormal and Torv was totally believable grappling with the tension between the explicable and the inexplicable.

She played a great cop, and is also convincing here as a hard-nosed Canberra journo determined not to be mired in the new-media landscape of clickbait and the 30 second grab. There’s something of the young Faye Dunaway about her — a little removed, cutting and sexy.

Damon Herriman is a standout as the transgender Kim Gordon, a senior analyst and China expert at the Australian Signals Directorate — actually Dunkley’s former husband. Convincing and tightly coiled, she’s a woman holding many secrets. And the very versatile, hardworking Dan Wyllie does his always resourceful job as Paxton, credible as a scheming Labor man with many skeletons in the closet, who also knows his luck must eventually run out.

Jackie Weaver turns up doing one of her tough profane women-of-the-world roles as attorney general Catriona Bailey, carrying it off with her usual precision and wit.

Then there’s Eugenia Yuan, daughter of martial arts legend Cheng Pei-Pei and an award-winner actor in the US and Hong Kong, who is simply delicious as Weng Meihui, wife of the Chinese Ambassador, once involved with Paxton, possibly a spy and most of all one of Canberra’s most alluring and enigmatic women.

The look of Secret City is hi-tech glossy, the camera work of cinematographer Mark Wareham sophisticated — he uses few crane shots or big camera movements, preferring to frame the actors up close with wide lenses include the Canberra backgrounds — but never at the expense of the performances.

“On Secret City we took a classical approach with the coverage and blocking to enable actors the space and freedom to achieve their best possible performances,” Wareham says. “This was Emma’s mantra and it is this mantra that delivers authentic performances without sacrificing the visual drama.”

As he usually does — he was also responsible for the almost Euro-art movie look of the just released Cleverman — Wareham finds hard-earned beauty even in the most humdrum surroundings and makes clever use of Canberra’s geometric town plan of lawn circles and spokes, those rectangles, ellipses and circles.

He and production designer Felicity Abbot also capture the brutalist architecture and public service feel and, as a consequence, their look is compositionally uncluttered. “We wanted to capture the man-made and the natural atmosphere of Canberra from the fog on the lake to the rows of mass flowering plantings juxtaposed against the austerity of the buildings.”

Canberra as a city has traditionally been regarded as a place to poke ridicule at or apologise for, but as this fine series suggests, maybe it’s time to take it seriously.