Underbelly: Razor

Razor serves up a a stylised, often theatrical, look at Sydney vice in the 1920s as Nine and Screentime take a leap of faith with their brand of urban myths.

I’m not sure whether Australia’s fascination with crims and the underworld harks back to our convict past, the Kelly Gang, Mad Dog Morgan, Squizzy Taylor or something else altogether. I suppose it it a trait of many ‘civilised’ societies. But we certainly seem to be drawn to them.

We’re also drawn to the Underbelly brand. There’s something about its mix of storytelling, star turns, media magnet and urban myth that piques our interest. The first season’s court banning elevated the Nine series above its (very good) content. In Victoria audiences watching it via bit torrent, buying bootleg DVDs in car parks, and pubs were screening it from signals from interstate. Nine may have been denied the ratings it deserved, but it unwittingly gained infamy, longevity and “event TV” status.

Now that we’ve peeled back the veneer of Melbourne in the 1990s, Sydney in the 1970s and 1980s, we stretch all the way back to the 1920s for Underbelly: Razor. Having also had three stand-alone telemovies, it’s now pretty clear that just about any crime story is ripe for the Underbelly treatment (although the ones that tell it from a crim perspective rather than a cop’s work best).

So despite being set amid Darlinghurst’s roaring back alleys, cheap brothels, two-up rooms and a distant, incomplete Harbour Bridge, the brand’s unmistakable style is all over this tale. And it works.

Based on Larry Writer’s book Razor, the focus of the fourth series are infamous vice queens Kate Leigh (Danielle Cormack) and Tilly Devine (Chelsie Preston Crayford). Leigh ran a sly grog shop while Devine was a brothel madam. Sydney’s famed feud was almost ignited by the petty ownership of a spoiled dog. But it was to grow far worse.

They would become surrounded by thugs in dapper attire who would inflict pain at their beckoning, all without attracting conviction from the law.

In the two-hour season premiere original Underbelly location, Melbourne, makes an appearance when Squizzy Taylor (Justin Rosniak) banishes standover man Norman Bruhn (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor) to Sydney. Bruhn takes his young family north to build a new life and quickly asserts himself within the underworld -and in between Leigh and Devine.

Although Razor will become dominated by its female matriarchs, the opener is still strong in its male protagonists. Jeremy Lindsay Taylor is a standout as Bruhn with a swagger and menace fitting with the Underbelly marquee. Felix Williamson makes a sinister gangster, Phil “The Jew” Jeffs, and Khan Chittenden impresses as a baby-faced Frank “The Little Gunman” Green.

In the central roles of the feuding women are two New Zealand actresses. Underbelly‘s taste for sex and glamour depicts them as young and attractive, rather than opting for character actresses. Danielle Cormack brings dark glamour to her role as the defiant Kate Leigh. Chelsie Preston Crayford, as the British-born Tilly Devine, affects an extreme Cockney accent that risks caricature.

Razor does tinker with dramatic license, serving up a stylised, often theatrical, take for primetime television. But then, did Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ sexed-up Henry VIII ever stop us from enjoying The Tudors? So what if Andy Whitfield’s Spartacus was a semi-porn lesson in Roman history? Similarly, Razor is no documentary. Taking a 1990s song such as “The Nips Are Getting Bigger” and singing it in a cabaret bar may not be historically accurate, but it absolutely works.

Screentime, which achieved visual triumphs in Cloudstreet, turns it on again in Razor. The use of locations, the production design and lighting are outstanding. The costumes are excellent, although a few too many look like they have just walked off the rack rather than being lived in.

All the Underbelly hallmarks are here: Caroline Craig’s narration (thankfully they pull back on it with each season), story montages (ditto), sex (Underbelly is always biased to the girls getting buff), violence -and more violence.

Some Underbellys have begun with a big bang but not kept the quality across the series. This premiere feels like it is just warming up, keeping plenty in reserve. Compared to previous seasons there is more for the eye too, sometimes resembling a graphic novel on the small screen.

Taking us back to post World War I Sydney was a leap of faith by Nine and Screentime. But in a year of period dramas they have timed this very well. There may well be blood on the streets and blood on the box too.

Underbelly: Razor airs 8:30pm Sundays on Nine.

49 Responses

  1. The actors were mainly very good although I thought Khan Chittenden (Frank the Gunman) was the frozen-faced exception. The sets, costumes, music… pretty much all the production values were consistently good to great.

    The thing that let this series down was the writing. No real sense of story arc or thru line, you could swap most episodes around in the series and you wouldn’t know. The best characters were killed off or moved on but this is probably a reflection of history rather than poor writing choices. The dialog was often strained and unbelievable and there were bizarre and irrelevant plot diversion that seemed mainly to exist to ensure this or that actor got some screen time (eg, the police lesbian non-romance – completely pointless). As the series lurched on it morphed into a cliche-ridden melodrama instead of the stylish, period gangland drama it should have been.

    I think the actors and the crew did the best job they could with the weak script they had to work with and it’s a shame because this show “could have had it all”.

  2. i love the show i think its great although i do believe that they should put it on at a later time like 9 or 9.30 so that young children are in bed and dont see the nudity and voilence of the show but other than that i always look forward to watching it on a sunday night!

  3. I completely agree with Bill’s assessment, well said. Only thing I’d disagree with is that the wardrobe is any good. It is ridiculously inaccurate, and cheap-looking (the women’s costumes in particular, I mean).

  4. How do you do the charleston.. I really need to know for dancing. And dont worry about these people saying they hate underbelly. They are dam underbelly is the best thing ever me an d my family love it sooooooooo much.

  5. Maybe this would be better recieved had it not been branded as part of the Underbelly franchise. As a stand alone drama with out the baggage of the previous series it would have worked better, I was not a huge fan of the previous Belly’s.

    The all round acting and production is pretty good but the story in some parts speeds up when i wish it would have gone into a bit more detail.

    The music choices are interesting, no issue with the winding back of Australian classic pop to the 1920’s but who ever suggested using The Entertainer during a good ol fashioned kicking scene needs to apologise !

    I’m sticking with this one but I am using the PVR.

  6. Another Australian drama fails miserably both in the writing and in conception. Where is the story? The narrator has no connection to the drama itself and is a lazy way for exposition which should be dramatised. The fight scenes are pure vaudeville with ramped up gypsy music. There is drama in silence guys and slow and deliberate escalation of the stakes. Good production design and wardrobe but this is never enough. Without any serious attempt to develop rich and multiple storylines and character the audience will steadily decline. Won’t watch again.

  7. Didn’t watch the first episode, watched the second, won’t
    watch again. Jeremy Lindsay Taylor at least looked like he
    could have come from the mean streets of Sydney in the
    20s. I agree with other comments, would it have been so
    hard to find appropriate music and an actress that could
    handle a “Pommy” accent???
    If anyone wants to see a real de-glamorised gangster
    movie with actors who act, look and sound as though they
    may have hob-nobbed with real lowlifes, I suggest “Little
    Caesar” (1930) with the wonderful Edward G. Robinson
    and “The Public Enemy” with the charismatic James Cagney.

  8. I was interested in the history (and don’t even mind it being glamorised), but the choppy storytelling, annoying narration and poor performances had me hating this by halfway through the first installment. Never mind the atrocious cockney accent, quite a few of the actors didn’t really seem to understand what they were saying half the time. The constant foreshadowing in the narration actually robs the story of any suspense. And all the characters remain steadfastly two-dimensional throughout. If they can’t come up with a single intriguing character in the first two characters, then I figure the rest of the series isn’t really worth my investment.

  9. It had its faults but I thought it may get better but channel Nine flushed those down the toilet with the adds, I thought Ten was bad this was a disgrace and sorry thats me, no more I will wait for the DVD if it ever gets that far and even then I will hire it. PS good to see Australians getting a go.

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