Mystery Road: Origin review – Jay Swan is back and still awesome | australian tv

Since hitting screens in 2013, Akubra-clad outback sleuth Jay Swan has made his mark joining 1920s fashionista Phryne Fisher and whiskey-soaked, cardie-wearing Jack Irish in the pantheon of the greatest Australian detectives of all time. With all the multiverse tales circulating these days, perhaps Fisher could swing through a portal to contemporary times and the three could reminisce about their toughest investigations and favorite “aha, that was you since the beginning”.

Except now the gods of the multiverse would have a choice of two Jay Swans: one played by Aaron Pedersen – who has been the hallmark feature of the gravitas-oozin’ franchise – and a significantly younger version played by Mark Coles Smith. The latter fills some really big cowboy boots in Mystery Road: Origin, thankfully delivering a performance that’s more than up to par. Like his predecessor, Coles Smith delivers a sort of gruff sensibility; it is a very measured, very controlled presence, full of subtle gestures which, combined, have a great effect.

Origin stories often contain dramatic storylines that unsubtly build formative events in the making of a legend: think of how the Star Wars prequels dealt with Darth Vader. But Mystery Road: Origin – directed by Dylan River (son of great author Warwick Thornton) and written by River, Blake Ayshford, Steven McGregor, Kodie Bedford and Timothy Lee – resists the joining moments perfectly, building a dramatically believable space that privileges the progressive revelations.

The show’s meandering plot involves a series of bizarre robberies in and around the mining town of Jardine, carried out by robbers wearing Ned Kelly masks. River immerses us in a strong sense of community that sometimes reminded me of Patrick Hughes’ 2010 neo-western Red Hill, in which a convicted murderer (played by the great Balang T Lewis) returns to his small town, determined to revenge on a dodgy cop played by Steve Bisley. Here Bisley is back in blue as Sergeant Peter Lovric, this time leading a more diverse cop shop with Swan, Senior Constable Max Armine (Hayley McElhinney) and Constable Cindy Cheng (Grace Chow ).

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Given that this is an origin story – Swan is in her twenties in her late 90s – it almost feels a bit too dialed and insured here, confidently investigating criminal syndicates and bravely watching offenders in dangerous situations. He even drops lines like “I don’t think you ever get used to getting shot,” which might be said by someone 40 or 50 years his senior. Instead of presenting a brash, wet-around-the-ears cop, the writers take it in a different, more interesting direction: In some ways, it seems like Swan is getting more and more unhinged over time. After all, Goldstone starts with his DUI arrest.

“All the actors are top notch”… Tuuli Narkle as Mary, Mark Coles Smith as Jay Swan and Clarence Ryan as Sputty. Photography: David Dare Parker

The relationship between Swan and her father Jack (the ever-reliable Kelton Pell) takes center stage, with their early interactions casting a long shadow over the series’ six-episode arc. It begins in beautifully cinematic style, with Jack standing on a dirt road crossing an effervescent salt lake. Swan gives him a lift, though it’s not immediately obvious that they are father and son; nor that their relationship is strained.

All the cast are top-notch, including several high-impact supporting performances such as Salme Geransar as the lawyer, Toby Leonard Moore as the local district attorney, and Clarence Ryan as Jay’s older brother, Sputty. I could go on, but the plot is long and winding, weaving together many characters, some whose relevance isn’t revealed until late in the run.

Narrative beats never feel labored, and Mystery Road: Origin feels refreshing on Jay, rather than just using it as a human path to a tangled web. Many productions of a similar length seem structured to fit the one-hour TV format, but River and his team created a smoother arc, almost as if the format bent to them. The narrative unfolds with a very satisfying sense of overall purpose and feels more like a six-hour movie than a series of episodes. But the show never overstays its welcome, and in fact, the same can be said for Swan himself: after two movies, three TV seasons, and two different actors, the sleuth remains a hugely appealing presence.

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