Aaron Pedersen, an Aboriginal actor who’s a major star in Australia, first played the Indigenous detective Jay Swan in the 2013 film “Mystery Road” (available on Amazon Prime). Swan is a classic type, the cop caught between his belief in the system and his loyalty to his own people, who automatically see him as a sellout. As embodied by the imposing Mr. Pedersen, he’s also a classic western hero: white hat, casual swagger, stony, squinting stare.
In the film Swan operated mostly on his own, a John Wayne-like warrior investigating and avenging the death of an Indigenous girl. (“Mystery Road” and another Swan feature, “Goldstone,” were written and directed by Ivan Sen.) But now the character has come to television, spun out in a six-episode Australian series also called “Mystery Road” that makes its American streaming debut Monday on AcornTV.
For the six-hour story — set in motion when a pair of ranch hands, one white and one Aboriginal, go missing on a vast cattle station — Swan has been given a jousting partner, another cop to warily build a relationship with, perhaps for seasons to come. And while Mr. Pedersen would be reason enough to watch the moody, flavorful, handsomely photographed show, the thing that really sets “Mystery Road” apart is the actress who signed on to play the outback sergeant Emma James: the great Judy Davis, playing a police officer for the first time in her career and starring in an Australian TV series for the first time in nearly 40 years.
Ms. Davis is so firmly identified in the American mind with intense, often neurotic city-dwelling characters (notably in Woody Allen movies) that it takes an episode or two to get used to her climbing in and out of a police car in the dusty, empty landscapes (shot on location around the town of Kununurra in Western Australia), wearing a baggy blue uniform that swallows her tiny frame. It seems at first as if she might not be right for the part, but eventually you see that she’s perfect. James is a formidable woman stuck in the middle of nowhere because of the bonds of family and history, and Ms. Davis’s preternatural intelligence and tightly capped energy serve her well.
Many countries have their version of the American western, but Australia, with its correspondingly dramatic landscapes and its history of subjugating Indigenous nations, makes a strikingly similar match. “Mystery Road” will feel familiar for fans of the resurgent contemporary American TV western, like “Longmire” or this summer’s cable hit, “Yellowstone.”
The mystery story, which incorporates drug trafficking, child sexual abuse and shady land deals, is fairly pedestrian. But in the hands of the director Rachel Perkins and the cinematographer Mark Wareham, the show is a visual knockout, an evocative succession of desert-, ranch- and starscapes.
It’s also bracing to see the way in which the lives and concerns of the Indigenous characters are given precedence without the self-consciousness, or self-congratulation, that sometimes marks American productions’ treatment of African-American or Native American characters in similar stories. That tends to be true of Australian TV and film in general, and “Mystery Road” features good work by a host of established Aboriginal performers, including Aaron L. McGrath, Deborah Mailman, Wayne Blair and Tasma Walton.
But Ms. Davis is first among equals, and the series becomes hers in its later episodes, as James is forced to uncover secrets about her family history. Some of the show’s best scenes are anguished conversations between James and her brother, moments whose naturalness and crack timing may owe something to the fact that the brother is played Ms. Davis’s husband of 34 years, Colin Friels. (They’ve appeared together frequently over the years, most notably in the great Gillian Armstrong film “High Tide” in 1987.) That’s a lot of Australian screen history to top off a western-mystery binge.
NYT Critic's Pick
By Mike Hale