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.