A few weeks ago, TV1 invited me to a screening of the first two episodes of the new true crime drama Killing Time, based on the decadent eighties rise and fall of criminal lawyer Andrew Fraser. The series begins on TV1 tonight, and it looks poised to give Australian audiences more of what they want with fewer of the gimmicks endemic to the genre.
Killing Time opens with Fraser (David Wenham) entering prison. Wenham looks aged and stone faced. We cut back to the eighties to chart his downwards trajectory from his days of snappy dressing. In these first two episodes it’s not clear specifically what he did, but it is somehow related to the company that he keeps.
That is, Fraser’s clients are almost exclusively criminals paying him with dirty money. Not just drugs and gang violence for these people, no; murder is one of their stock in trades, and the generation of witnesses goes hand in hand.
Killing Time has a degree of grit about it but where it succeeds is in portraying the criminals that Fraser associates with as larger than life, and potentially insane. There is a degree of the sinister about them, but more than that there is an unhinged that makes for uncomfortable viewing: Richard Cawthorne’s Dennis Allen is laughable in his constant extremes, but also disquieting. Cawthorne’s performance grounds a character that could have otherwise been totally unbelievable − despite the fact that the constant murders that he committed, along with the corpses that he dumped in the river just behind his house, are matters of public record.
Fraser’s rewards must have been very impressive to justify spending his time with so many men so flagrantly on the wrong side of the law, almost to the point of accessorising him with great frequency. Admittedly, this is a true story featuring composite characters and some fictionalising of events to make them telegenic (not to mention within the boundaries of legal acceptability), but Fraser’s attitude is near completely alien to anyone who didn’t move between the white lines of the eighties.
That Fraser has endorsed the show is impressive given the utter lack of scruples Wenham displays as the character in either era. The eighties Wenham acts with his teeth, treading very delicately with his clients and boasting to whatever woman will listen to him. The prison era Wenham has undergone a physical transformation, and is a ruddy mark in the grey tones of institution.
In the episodes I’ve seen, the prison storyline had not yet had a chance to take off; given that Fraser’s key contact outside prison is noted crime patriarch (and Underbelly mainstay) Lewis Moran, and that the series’ promotion is based around the duality of Fraser’s life, the time served has to become more than simple bookends.
Wenham’s charisma is undeniable, but the character is also played with an undeniable element of smarm. Watching the eighties incarnation of the man, the fact that he will end up in prison seems obvious and inevitable. He may well be a private school boy, but he comes across as someone who’s up for anything, regardless of moral soundness, as long as it pays (so, a private school boy, then). The women that he has had to deal with so far, including Diana Glenn as his future wife, are presented as one dimensional, existing only to be attracted to him and to end up in his bed. Glenn manages to wring some nuance from her performance; obviously she is going to have to face up to (or studiously ignore) the less than savoury aspects of her husband, so this augurs well for the role in future episodes.
While Killing Time has eschewed the gimmickry of say, Underbelly: Razor, by refusing to kowtow to freeze framed jump cuts and jokey super-imposed text, it does bear some of the hallmarks of modern “serious drama”; boasting multiple soft-core sex scenes (all in the same soft-focus bedroom) and several scenes set in strip clubs, Killing Time clearly subscribes to the idea that bare breasts are the same thing as gravitas. This trend is beginning to become notable to the point of detracting from the content audiences are supposed to be absorbing. Killing Time is not a terrible exemplar of the form, but it does mark itself as that sort of very serious crime drama.
Topless women aside, Killing Time is well made and sure to appease fans of true Australian crime TV. If true crime is going to be one of our most lucrative genres, then it should be as good as this.
Killing Time screens on TV1, Wednesdays at 8:30.