Magpie Murders

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Murder mystery

Availability: TVNZ on demand, Britbox

Storyline:  Successful writer and director Anthony Horowitz adapted this six-part series for the small screen based on his own 2016 crime novel, Magpie Murders. Tellingly, Horowitz first came up with the idea for the book when working on the classic series Midsomer Murders in the 1990s, and Magpie Murders certainly resonates with its whimsical humour and quintessential English settings. It is, nevertheless, a number of notches up from the hugely popular earlier series. Directed by the experienced Peter Cattaneo, Magpie Murders is a skilful story within a story. Alan Conway is a successful murder mystery writer whose series of novels follow the investigations of a 1950s German detective and refugee, Atticus Pünd. In his eagerly awaited novel, Conway takes his revenge on the people in his life that he dislikes, writing them cruelly into his fiction. The acerbic manuscript is with his publisher, Charles Clover, who gives it to Conway’s book editor Susan Ryeland to read. She takes it home, only to find it is missing its last crucial chapter. The next day, Conway is found dead outside his mansion, and the series follows Ryeland as she uses her amateur sleuthing skills to solve the riddle of the novelist’s death, and also the mystery of the missing chapter. 

Film-craft: In this astute series we seamlessly move from one story to the other – the contemporary murder of Alan Conway, and the 1950s murders in his novel. The people Conway despises, and spitefully includes as characters in his last work, become suspects in his death. We follow Ryeland, who follows Atticus Pünd, who becomes Ryeland’s imaginary friend. Actors play roles in both stories, one scene stepping into another. This could be confusing, and you do need to pay attention, but the whole thing is managed so well we become embroiled in both stories and, importantly, the conceits of the genre itself. The stylish cinematography captures stunning settings with great attention to detail.

Cast: Lesley Manville is wonderful in the role of Susan Ryeland. The spirited actor’s passion and exuberance shine through the series as she splendidly embraces the roles of book editor and amateur detective. Claire Rushbrook plays her sister, one of the people Conway manipulates to get intelligence on his characters. Interestingly Manville and Rushbrook, also played sisters in the recent series Sherwood. There are many fine performances in this quality production. Alexandra’s Logothetis does a fine job as Andreas, Susan’s love interest. Conleth Hill plays the rich and dislikable Conway to perfection, and Tim McMullan is terrific as the enigmatic, wise and unruffled Atticus Pünd. 

Personal Comments: Magpie Murders is a classic whodunnit – quirky and charming with plenty of twists and red herrings. There are a few loose trails in the plot, but it certainly makes us work on what’s happening as lives parallel lives across the two stories and deaths parallel deaths. It will undoubtedly appeal to the established Midsomer Murders fan base but also to anyone who likes the challenge of a clever and stylish detective mystery. Agatha Christie would take her hat off to this one.  

Decision to Leave

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Murder mystery 

Availability: In theatres, South Korean with subtitles

Storyline: Hae-Joon is a young detective living in Busan, South Korean’s second largest city. His wife, Jung-an, lives in the seaside town of Ipo a few hours drive away, but Ipo is much too quiet for Hae-Joon. Completely absorbed in his work, he needs the action of big-city crime. So they compromise. They see each other in Ipo, somewhat happily, on the weekends. At work, insomniac Hae-Joon polices the city night and day. Even so, Busan is too quiet for his liking. Then he is called upon to investigate the death of a man who has fallen, or has been pushed, off a cliff on the outskirts of the city. As he and his partner, Soo-wan, delve deeper into the case, Hae-Joon becomes increasingly infatuated by the dead man’s beautiful wife, Seo-rae who is a suspect in the murder. His obsession overwhelms his professional and personal life, threatening both in the process. 

Film-craft: Decision to Leave is a clever film by Korean director Park Chan-wook. The film’s focus on human obsession resonates with his astonishing 2016 psychological thriller, The Handmaiden. In both films Park perfectly combines black humour with deceit and a streak of romance. The earlier film is an historical drama, but Decision to Leave is well embedded in the twenty-first century. Park uses modern technologies – smartphones and smartwatches – in ways I haven’t seen before. We see Hae-Joon through the lens of the phone, and we experience all the pauses and tensions of texting in real-time. The film’s intelligent camerawork  also reinforces the enmeshing of relationships as Hae-Joon and Seo-rae meld into each other’s lives. One moment they are in conversation at the police station, the next they are looking at things in each other’s homes, montaged frames playing with imagination and reality and giving rise to more questions than answers. Kim Ji-yong’s cinematography is stunning, with wonderful overhead shots of sea and sand, forest and city.  

Cast: Korean actor Park Hae-il is outstanding as detective Hae-Joon as he wrestles with his preoccupations. Equally terrific is the well known Chinese actor, Tang Wei as the complicated Seo-rae. The intimacy between them – the clearing of the table when they have eaten together, the way they watch each other, the simmering sexual tension between them – leaps out from the screen. This is in sharp contract to the dispassionate relationship between Hae-Joon and his wife Jung-an, also played splendidly by the talented Lee Jung-hyun. 

Personal Comments: This is a terrific film that keeps you guessing until it’s ready to reveal its twists in the plot. So don’t be surprised if you don’t have a clue what’s happening at the midpoint. We make discoveries along with Hae-Joon, and about him, as the film unfolds. Then it all comes together, making you want to go back and have another look. Decision to Leave isn’t perfect – at well over two hours it’s definitely too long. But for such a great film, that’s something I’m prepared to overlook.

Lost Illusions

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Period drama

Availability: At theatres, French with subtitles

Storyline: Lost Illusions is an adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s weighty serial novel Illusions Perdues. It is a bildungsroman drama that follows the literary ambitions of Lucien de Rubempré, a young poet of modest means, who works in his brother-in-law’s printing business in 19th century rural France. Lucien begins a passionate affair with Louise de Bargeton, a country noblewoman who is unhappily married to a rich old man. She passes the time hosting social events where she promotes the work of young writers. It is through this patronage of the arts that she meets and takes a particular fancy to Lucien. She believes him to possess a superior talent, and that with her support he will become a great romantic poet. Emboldened by the affair, and against advice, she arranges for him to accompany her to Paris where she proceeds to introduce him into society. Soon, however, she realises the reputational dangers of having an unschooled and naive young man as her companion, and she cuts him off. Stung by her abandonment, and finding himself shunned by the Paris aristocracy, Lucien makes the acquaintance of a journalist, Etienne Lousteau, who introduces him to the corrupt and cynical world of the Parisian Fourth Estate. He finds that in Paris money is the new royalty ‘and no one wants to chop off its head’. Payment determines whether a review of a new book or play will be favourable or not. Lucien builds a reputation for writing savage reviews of intense cruelty about literary works, also targeting people who have slighted him. And he makes a good deal of money as he writes them. His increasingly reckless behaviour, spawned by his need of fame and recognition, nevertheless begins to threaten all that he has gained, and also undermines the livelihood and wellbeing of the one person he cares most about.   

Film-craft: Directed by Xavier Giannoli, and co-written by Giannoli, Jacques Fieschi, and Yves Stravrides, Lost Illusions is a tour de force. It won seven Césars in 2022, including best film. It’s visually spectacular, with a rich and intelligent script that brilliantly adapts Balzac’s complex novel.

Cast: There are a lot of unlikable characters in Lost Illusions, and the stellar cast bring out the worst (and occasionally the best) of human nature. It’s difficult to single out praise, but Benjamin Voison does an excellent job as the infatuated Lucien who trades his idealism and literary principles for scandal journalism. Vincent Lacoste is terrific as the opportunistic but reprehensible Lousteau, who plays an important role in Lucien’s downfall. Cecile de France is also wonderful as the reserved and beautiful Louise, who finds herself increasingly compromised by the the expectations of Parisian society.  

Personal Comments: Lost Illusions is astonishing in its breadth, and is quite brilliant in its execution. It’s a film about the prostitution of art and literature within a decaying society, where money controls everything, and success or failure depends on whether you can pay. Despite the length (it’s around two and a half hours), and its ambitious script, it manages to hold the audience in its grip as reputations and livelihoods are relentlessly sacrificed on the alter of ‘fake news’. It has more than a few melodramatic shades of operatic tragedy that might have been dispensed with. But as a film that interrogates the intellectual fashion of an age, it’s impressive.

Party Tricks

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ + ½ 

Categorisation: Romantic political drama

Availability:  Tubi (

Storyline: In 2014 John Edwards, Imogen Banks and Michael Lucas co-produced this Australian six-part series for the Channel Ten Network. It tells the story of Labor Premier, Kate Ballard, who is about to contest the Victorian state election. The Liberal party is in the midst of a leadership change. Ballard is at first dismissive of her new and inexperienced Liberal opponent, David McLeod – he doesn’t even have a seat in Parliament yet. But she soon realises that being a political rookie presents no barrier to McLeod’s ambitions. He is charismatic and popular. They also have history. Suddenly the contest becomes much closer and more complicated than Ballard and her political advisors had expected. 

Film-craft: This is a stylish and slick production with wonderful scenes of Melbourne. It makes great use of the city’s fabulous public spaces and impressive buildings. The script by Michael Lucas is smart and snappy, and the six short episodes race along at a terrific pace. 

Cast: Party Tricks has an excellent cast. Award winning actor Asher Keddie as Kate Ballard, and the equally likeable Roger Corser as David McLeod, are really outstanding in the lead roles. They have wonderful onscreen chemistry and presence – they are funny, passionate, and it’s surprising to me that they didn’t win an award for these performances. Charlie Garber is terrific as Oliver Parkham, Ballard’s scriptwriter. Also worthy of note is Wayne Duffy who manages her campaign. Ash Ricardo is splendid as the politically savvy Charlotte Wynn, who is the big brain behind McLeod’s campaign. Visibly pregnant, she steals every scene in her six-inch heels and her closely fitting voguish attire.  

Personal Comments: Party Tricks is great fun – a light drama with a few shades of political satire. While it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it cleverly manages to capture the ruthlessness of election campaigning, the Machiavellian tensions, and the human costs involved when political stakes are high. Unexpectedly, it didn’t prove popular with Ten Network audiences. Perhaps the fact that it aired at a turbulent time in Australian political history, with a string of prime ministers coming and going, and trust in politicians at an all time low, had something to do with it. It is, nevertheless, a highly entertaining and very bingeable series. Although different in context, if you liked The Chair (, you may well like this one.