July 5, 2022


The making of Jay Swan in ‘Mystery Road: Origin’

By Anne Rutherford
Image of Mark Coles Smith as Detective Jay Swan in Mystery Road: Origin. Image supplied

Mark Coles Smith as Detective Jay Swan in Mystery Road: Origin. Image supplied

Mark Coles Smith leads an impressive ensemble cast in the ABC’s new prequel series uncovering the early life of Indigenous detective Jay Swan

The camera glides across an elegant, coffered ceiling, then sweeps down to reveal an ornate auditorium, before coming to rest on a quintet – four string players and a percussionist, in formal blacks – playing Bach. Once the crowd is seated, dressed in their best, the quintet breaks into “Waltzing Matilda”, but played so slowly that it sounds maudlin, as young couples step out in a parade of long white gowns, white gloves, black suits and bowties. Girls hold out their gowns as if ready for a curtsey; boys hold one arm behind their backs, as if stepping into a gentlemanly duel. There are a few sideways glances in the audience, from one stony face to the other, but alongside the occasional eyeroll there are also appreciative nods of pleasure. After the dance of the couples, two “proud members of the Southwell family, who first settled in Jardine five generations ago” take the stage to introduce the major event on the town’s social calendar: the Jardine Indigenous Debutante Ball. Geraldine Southwell (Caroline Brazier) – effusive, magnanimous – and her brother Patrick (Daniel Henshall) recount with pride their father’s role as “the driving force” behind the establishment of the ball. “He did it as a gesture to acknowledge the injustices of the past, so that we could walk together side by side today,” says Geraldine.

This early scene in Mystery Road: Origin, the ABC’s new prequel series uncovering the early life of Indigenous detective Jay Swan, leaves the viewer on unsteady ground. Surely the filmmakers are taking the piss here? The debutante tradition comes from the wealthy and privileged: it aims to present young women to high society, to teach young couples etiquette and decorum, and uses white as a symbol of purity. Is the scene tongue-in-cheek, or is it a nod to a ritual that might not meet the sniff test of a metropolitan sensibility but has been revised and re-purposed as a proud rite of passage across regional Australia and, indeed across the Anglophone world? Nothing is black and white here. Viewers are left to put the pieces together in the gulf between the said and the unsaid, via the choreography of performance, camera movement and music.

Mystery Road: Origin takes up the template established by writer/director Ivan Sen’s 2013 feature film Mystery Road, and spinoff Goldstone (2016), to explore the often fractious cultural interfaces in Australian country towns, but in a way that plays with nuance and ambiguity, often laced with irony, rather than in a didactic way. Sen’s goal in the feature films was to use the familiar tropes of genre cinema to delve into territory previously unexplored on the Australian screen, and to use the character of Jay Swan to bring an Indigenous perspective. The hybrid of thriller, Western and detective genres – dubbed “outback noir” – grew into the hugely successful Mystery Road TV series, which has made the most of the long-form television format to unravel some of the layers of these complex social worlds.

The new television series, set in 1999, traces the backstory of Jay: his fractured relationships with his belligerent father and his wild, hard-drinking brother, and the growing romance between him and the only one who can really get under his skin, Mary. The young Jay, played by Mark Coles Smith, has some of the toughness and intensity of Aaron Pedersen’s older Jay – a man of few words who we read through his body language, with his face and eyes often freighted with a knowledge that is not spelt out in dialogue – but there’s a sweetness in this young Jay. He has not yet been shattered by loss, not yet hardened into the man he will become, forged out of his determined pursuit of drug kingpins and wracked with rage, with a desperate vulnerability that surfaces only when he is alone. As the young Mary, Tuuli Narkle captures some of the wary cynicism that characterised Tasma Walton’s portrayal of the older Mary, with a touch of humour and a playful sensuousness. Words are secondary between the younger Jay and Mary, which is so far from the way in which the older, estranged couple use language as a lacerating blade, cutting each other to the core but masking the depth of both the wounds inflicted and the lingering, unresolved bond between them.

In Mystery Road: Origin, a young detective Jay comes up against tangled webs of crime, ganja, and incompetent and corrupt cops, all played out against the ever-present racism. A legal aid lawyer (Salme Geransar), new in town, finds anomalies in a homicide cold case, but her attempts to find out more are met with a wall of silence. This unsolved murder, and then another, set against the menacing escapades of what appears to be a neo-Nazi gang, start to pull out threads of connection between the criminal and the moneyed, and threaten to unravel the taut fabric of the town. Jay’s father, Jack, is caught up somehow in this melee. Then the plot starts to twist in unexpected ways as family secrets are exposed.

Tensions run deep in Jardine, where former station workers and their descendants live side by side with the family of the station owner (a man who “looked at Jack and the other blackfellas on his station as his stock”, as Jay says), where the station workers were thrown off the land when the equal pay decision came in 1968, where lives are interwoven but on totally different trajectories of wealth and disadvantage, and where a little bit of philanthropy takes the place of land justice.

Each series of Mystery Road has teased out different aspects of this legacy, astutely weaving into the narrative contemporary frictions and an intimate knowledge of how these tensions play out in everyday interactions. In Mystery Road: Origin, the pastoralist family has become miners, continuing to expand the mine as its detonations constantly rumble across the town, disrupting the lives of locals with reverberations that shake glasses and knock paintings off walls. Hooking into the series’ tradition of unmasking society’s masquerades, the characterisation of the pastoralists’ kids could be channelling any one of a number of prominent miners and pastoralists for whom paternalistic philanthropy is a thin veneer over the ruthless politics of land.

Watching the character of Jay Swan evolve throughout the films and television series has been a fascinating journey for aficionados. In this prequel, his character is fleshed out through encounters with his family. Between Jay and his father, Jack, few words are spoken in terse, bitter exchanges. As Jack Swan, Kelton Pell is a revelation. Often cast as sullen characters, Pell here is fierce, a hard man but with a touch of the showman, full of bravado, and a bawdy womaniser still brandishing his talents as a former champion rodeo rider. Jay’s brother, Sputty (Clarence Ryan), is a constant irritant to Jay, with a looseness of limb and an unshackled energy that refuses to yield to Jay’s discipline, refuses to hold everything inside. Jay’s estranged mother, Fiona (Nina Young), completes the picture of Jay’s broken family. Amid an impressive ensemble cast, Megan Wilding gives a standout performance as Ziggy, a feral outcast living out on the salt lake, guarding the dope plantation and constantly in an imagined tête-à-tête with a “devil-man”.

Shot on location around Kalgoorlie-Boulder and Coolgardie, this season features the grandiose architecture of the West Australian goldfields – the legacy of the wealth that was pulled out of the ground in the early 1900s – set against a spectacular landscape of white salt lakes and the arid country around them. Director Dylan River and director of photography Tyson Perkins frame this stunning landscape in striking geometrical compositions: at times, the salt lake, radiating white light, is transected by the reddish-brown dirt road, forming three triangles converging in a vanishing point at the horizon that opens onto a vast rectangle of sky; at other times, salt and sky form two horizontal stripes on the expansive wide screen, the divide between the flat strip of glistening white salt and the bleached-out stripe of sky vaulting above it marked only by the slightest sliver of vegetation on the horizon. The stark, minimalist compositions add a new vocabulary to the outback noir iconography that has enraptured fans of Mystery Road since its inception.

Mystery Road: Origin is produced for the ABC by Bunya Productions, a company with a vision to produce great drama that casts light into some of the dark corners of Australian culture, and to nurture new talent, particularly First Nations talent. The web of productive working relationships fostered by Bunya keeps expanding: Rachel Perkins directed the first television series of Mystery Road; series two was directed by Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair. In an intriguing legacy of these trailblazers, the director of season three is Dylan River – Thornton’s son – and the cinematographer, Tyson Perkins, is a nephew of Rachel Perkins.

The television series has never quite matched Ivan Sen’s deft screenwriting in the feature film – indeed, Sen is rarely equalled on the Australian screen when it comes to writing complexity into context and character. But as the director’s baton has been passed on and the screenwriting team reconfigured between each iteration of Mystery Road, the different inflections of character and performance have kept reinvigorating the series, combining the hard-hitting truths of a gritty realist drama with lots of thrills, suspense and lively action.


Mystery Road: Origin screened at Sydney Film Festival in June, and is now showing on ABC TV and iview.

Anne Rutherford

Anne Rutherford is a film critic and adjunct associate professor in cinema studies at Western Sydney University.

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