I watched Channel 9’s Underbelly Razor for the first time last night and after all the hype I must say that I was disappointed. I missed the first episode which I think must have aired on Sunday night, so I am even more disappointed to find a lack of story telling in Monday’s episode. So bearing in mind that I missed the first episode, these are my thoughts.
I thought the whole thing almost comical at times and the story and character development poorly thought through. If both the female lead characters, Kate Leigh (played by Danielle Cormack) and Tilly Devine (played by Chelsie Preston Crayford), where serious players in the underworld of sly grog and prostitution in the 30’s in Australia then it must have been a pretty tame place. Neither of them scared me so I can’t image how they would scare a real gangster. I didn’t think that either of these characters had developed well enough to give us any real back story about how they had arrived at the life that they had, what had driven them to this life, and they maintained their positions of power?
Tilly Devine (Actor: Chelsie Preston Crayford) had been in prostitution in England since she was sixteen, when she met a good-looking, but violent Australian man known as Big Jim Devine (Actor: Jack Campbell) and soon followed him to Australia. Clearly, the real Tilly Devine would have been as tough as nails to survive this early life as a prostitute being beaten up and abused by the man she loved. The story line did not adequately explain the complex relationship between Tilly and Big Jim. No doubt the real Tilly was tough but with a vulnerable self-destructive side to her which played out in the violent co-dependent relationship between herself and Big Jim. Instead I was left with a picture of a nasty weak women who, instead of being in charge, was seemingly controlled by Big Jim. This was possibly the true relationship between Big Jim and Tilly where she headed up the business in name only so that Big Jim stayed clean, and maybe this was common for the time. I was left to work out too much by myself and I thought that Chelsie Preston Crayford didn’t seem to understand the drivers that would have made the character of Tilly remain tough even under this circumstances. The scene in the butcher’s shop was almost laughable – Preston Crayford doesn’t have the substance to portray the inner toughness coupled with a bitter self-destructive nature that must have pushed someone like the real Tilly to behave in such a fashion, if in fact she did behave like that at all!
The original Kate Leigh (Cormack), must have been some women! It is still difficult for women in many male dominated environments today, but back then it would have been extremely difficult and even more difficult than it was for Tilly who was in a more accepted business for a women. For someone like Kate Leigh to be successful in the sly grog business she must have had real guts and a fearlessness that you could recognise at 50 paces. I didn’t see much evidence of this in last night’s show. There was one time that I saw a glimpse of the toughness that should have been there and that was during the scene where Norman Bruhn (Actor : Jeremy Lindsay Taylor) threatened Kate in her own office. There was a spark here that just didn’t develop through the show. The emphasis on the two main female characters fighting each other in such a way was also hard to believe. For these women to be successful in the first place they must have been able to think clearly and ask questions? Perhaps they were both just pawns being controlled by men, but this didn’t come out strongly enough if that were the case. Instead they just seemed like shrieking fish wives, not what you would expect from a tough hard nosed business women, so I think that the writing let the actors down in this regard.
Sadly, I think that the Director and Producers have concerntrated more on their female lead characters looking good and less on the substance required to portray these women in the way they deserve. Whilst I think that generally the acting was pretty poor, much of the blame must go to the Direction. Perhaps these young female actors are not able to connect to a reality of what it was really like for a women in the 20’s and 30’s. My own grandmother would have been about sixteen around this time, a similar age to the character of Nellie:- coming from the bush she was a tough character. She went to Sydney at the age of 17 from Coonabarabran to find her way in the city as a teacher. It was then commonplace for young women to be molested and abused in the workplace and even in public by “gentlemen callers”. She often told me stories of how she would get out of the sulky (horse-drawn cart) and walk many many miles home through the bush in preference to being molested by what her mother called “a nice boy”. Neither, Preston Crayford or Cormack demonstrated this type of toughness and maybe this is partly due to a lack of experience and knowledge of how it was in the 20’s and 30’s for these real life characters. Understanding the history is one thing, but an actor must have some similar experience to portray the characters experience to us as viewer and I just didn’t see the grit and intenal fortifude coming through in the performances.
Again the back story around the character of Nellie Cameron (Actor : Anna McGahan) was not fully explored. It seemed unlikely for a girl of her age during that time, from a “good family” would just drop her bodice to display her breasts so easily. Maybe a fantasy of the Director, maybe it happened that way in real life, but what lead her to behave in way that would have been so against the norm? McGahan did a reasonable job holding her own in the cast, but the undeveloped script quality and storyline let her down.
The role of Big Jim Devine was well acted by Jack Campbell who was one of the shining lights. Jeremy Lindsay Taylor’s Norman Bruhn was adequate and hopefully will develop a little more before he is killed off after “100 days”, but generally the foreboding harshness that would have been the reality of the day was not there. Nor was there a demonstration of the complexity of his relationships between Tilly and his wife and between Bruhn’s family life and his violent working life. What were his drivers or did I just miss something?
The minor characters of Guido Calletti was well portrayed by Actor : Richard Brancatisano, with his brooding wistful love for Nellie clear and unspoken during the dance scene. He at least showed some toughness when challenged by Bruhn, this was a good performance which will be built on in future episodes not doubt.
Hopefully we will see much more of Lucy Wigmore who plays policewoman Lillian Armfield. This was an understated performance, easy to watch, you were naturally drawn to this character. This is an important role that demonstrates the difference between a true inner toughness of one of “the first female police” and women like Tilly and Kate who are pushed into a type of toughness that often germinates with sexual power.
John Batchelor gives a solid supporting performance as Kate’s mate Wally Tomlinson and it was great to see an actor not over acting and trying to hard. When Wally caressed Kate’s leg after her fight with Tilly – it was a tender and loving moment – just a hint of the complexity to come.
Film quality was good and all the internally shot scenes looked great.
In summary, Razor needs to pick up substantial pace and quality to see it through. Hopefully the characters will develop rapidly and the acting will improve in the coming episodes. There was a disjointed feel between the characters and it was sometimes hard to work out why things were happening, but this could be due to me missing the first episode.
The history lesson is interesting and I will give it another go the next week for Episode 3.