I wrote a while back that while I really enjoyed the strong, pivotal female characters in Undebelly: The Golden Mile, I was disappointed that all the female characters were either victims of crime or crusaders against it, as if women have never been in the thick of the crime. Where were the corrupt cops? The wives and girlfriends who know exactly where their dimonds and furs come from, and don’t care? The villians in the thick of things? Hell, given this was a series focusing on prostitution and organised crime in Sydney, where were the madams, the brothel owners?
So, when I heard about the fourth installment, Underbelly: Razor, set in 1920’s Sydney and focusing on the exploits of crime queens Kate Leigh (sly grog, cocaine) and Tilly Devine (prostitution) who, at their peak, pretty much ran Sydney’s oragnised crime between them as well as running one of the country’s most well-known blood fueds, you can imagine how excited I was. Not to mention, the gorgeous costumes.
Well, at least it didn’t let me down on the costumes.
Part of the problem is my antipathy with Razor is largely based on a feeling. Kate and Tilly just don’t come across as particularly scary – they say how ruthless these women were, but I didn’t get the same sense of mercilessness that past villans have been given – Carl Williams in the original Underbelly, Terry Clark in Tale of Two Cities. Kate and Tilly come across more as teenagers in a bad movie, engaginging one endless catfight. In an early episode, they brawl in the streets, complete with hair-pulling and name-calling.
Kate and Tilly do not come across as powerful women whose ambitions exceed the law. They come across as petty schoolgirls who’d rather engage in catfights than club together and take on the Boys Club, the whole being greater than the sum of its part and all. And yes, I know, that Kate and Tilly’s rivalry transcended all logic – their empires weren’t in direct competition with each other, and they could have achieved a lot more working together than fighting – and it could have match for great watching if we got any insight to why these two women seemed to be hardwires to fight with each other than unite and fight with the Boys Club. (In an early episode, it takes a lot of cajoling to get Kate and Tilly to join forces against a mutual enemy, Norman Bruhn… then Tilly goes and blows is because she doesn’t like the way they’ve agreed on, and brings down the wrath of the law on them all.)
Nellie Cameron, who was one of the city’s most famous, highly-paid prostitues at the time, comes across as a heartless coquette who encourages the men she ‘loves’ to get into brawls/knife-fights/shoot-outs over her. She definitely does not come across as the talented professional she must have been to become so well-known. And in the epilogue, when the ever-reliable Jacqie James (Caroline Craig, who played a major roll in the original Underbelly and has been narrating installments ever since) says ‘no-one knows why she ended her life by sticking her head in an oven.’ Well, I guess they didn’t have Wiki in the 20’s, but they damn well had in in 2011… Cameron killed herself because she had inoperable cancer, and given they had no chemo back then, I can imagine suicide is a pretty pleasant alternative to a slow, painful death. They make it sound like she randomly killed herself when she got sick of her life of sin, when actually she did because she didn’t fancy an even shittier death. (Most likely, I can only guess at the thoughts running the head of a woman who’s been dead fifty-plus years.)
In a secondary role is Lillian Armfield, one of the first woman detective in Australian history. But her role felt a little flat – like it was kind of sucky to be a woman in such a male-dominated field (seriously, her biggest issue is sharing a bathroom with the guys and he boss ignoring her ideas), but there was no sexual hasrrasment, no wage inequality… Underbelly: The Golden Mile did a brilliant job of addressing the sexual harassment of female cops in the late nineties, but Razor neglects to so much as mention in the epilogue that the reason Lillian died in a crappy flat in her eighties was that the police department refused to pay for her pension. God forbid that a woman work hard for decade after decade and earn the right to retire in comfort.
The final episode evolves heavily around the inauguration of the Sydney Harbour bridge and its accompanying controversies, which, while an interesting story in itself, has little to do with Kate and Tilly. It felt like someone had thought ‘hey, lets do something which culminates in the Harbour Bridge being built’ and worked the story around that. I got no sense of the powerful, frightening women that Kate and Tilly must have been to earn both their place in Sydney’s crime scene in that era and in Australia’s history. I got no sense of the shrewd businesswoman Nellie Cameron must have been, or the ambitious cop that Lillian Armfield must have been. These women fell flat against the history of powerful, frightening, ambitious men and women that Underbelly’s heroes and villians have been in the past.