Secret City: A home-grown political thriller competing on the global stage

Craig Mathieson

16/06/2016

Ben Chifley, the reform-minded Labor Party leader and Australia’s 16th prime minister, famously spoke of “the light on the hill” in a 1949 speech. The shared hopefulness of that phrase was turned upside down at the opening of Secret City, the new political thriller screening on Showcase: a young man runs for his life through the dark Canberra night, the lights of Parliament House glowing in the background. Darkness, in this instance, prevails.

When the young man’s body is found by the police the next morning, sliced open so as to retrieve something valuable he swallowed, it’s observed by political journalist Harriet Dunkley (Anna Torv), whose desire for a story is well-matched to the six part mini-series’ feel for tight plotting and urgent revelations in what is a smart, telling success.

The backdrop feels recognisable, from the location shooting in the courtyards and corridors of Parliament House to the debate between a Labor government’s Defence Minister, Mal Paxton (Dan Wyllie), and military brass and department mandarins over whether the next generation of Navy submarines should be built in Japan or Australia. A disparaging remark about Joint Strike Fighters ticks the final expensive box.

There’s long been a belief that political thrillers won’t play with an Australian backdrop because we’re an international backwater, short on goons and gunplay. But the primary weapons in Secret City are electronic warfare and the struggle is over information. The storyline’s conspiracy involves an Australian student who used self-immolation as a political protest in China, and it’s played out through SIM cards, digital surveillance and computer hacking.
The ABC’s The Code started down this path two years ago, and Secret City goes further by focusing on the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the intelligence agency tasked with signals intelligence and information security. The ASD contributes to surveillance programs such as Echelon and secure networks with names no screenwriter will ever dare invent, such as Stone Ghost, and on the show its actions are a reminder that Australia possesses more complex codes than Julie Bishop’s emojis.

One of the key characters pursuing the crucial data, Kim Gordon (Damon Herriman), is a senior ASD analyst and Harriet’s former husband. Kim is a transgender woman, and Secret City acknowledges her transition without pausing for qualifying speeches. A good thriller needs more than police raids and menacing Chinese spies, and the emotional resonance in Secret City comes from the enduring closeness between the former couple.

When they argue, it’s a lacerating confrontation between two people who know each other intimately, torn between Harriet’s desire to break stories and Kim’s belief in the big picture of national security. Harriet knows when Kim is lying, and also when she’s in love with an ASIO agent, Charles Dancer (Alex Dimitriades), and for Harriet to investigate what Kim learns means investigating her own marriage.

Torv, best known for the US science-fiction series Fringe, gives Harriet a purposeful air that tips easily into the obsessive. “Human interest is for journos interested in humans. I do politicians,” she tells her bureau chief. Torv’s heroine, who takes her pleasure with a younger lover but eschews his hope for romance, is thankfully afforded the flaws common to her male predecessors.

Emma Freeman’s direction, knitted together by Canberra atmospherics, keeps away from the soap opera dynamics of the easy US comparison, House of Cards, while capturing the triumphant malevolence of Jacki Weaver’s Attorney-General and Labor powerbroker, Catriona Bailey, who views a national emergency as the perfect chance to push through laws reducing civil liberties. Someone just needed to punch up the character’s swearing, because it’s not suitably swingeing enough.

The middle episodes open out the plot, revealing multiple strands and allowing characters such as Mal Paxton, whose past involves a compromise with China that extends to a current day relationship with the Chinese ambassador’s wife, Weng Meigu (Eugenia Yuan), to become more nuanced. Dan Wyllie, last seen as a ruminative crim in Stan’s No Activity, has a natural likeability that upends easy perceptions and it’s well used here.

The way Secret City holds up different angles of Wyllie’s politician recalls the cracking 2003 BBC series State of Play, which mastered the twist of building a singular, intensely focused mood even as the plot grew labyrinthine. What it also has is a contemporary edge; watching ASD officers confiscate smart phones before a funeral service, you’re reminded that national security really is a matter of life and death.