In the opening scene of Secret City, a young Australian girl on scholarship to China noisily demands a free Tibet. Then she sets herself on fire.
There are presumably better ways of making a point, as the young woman promptly realizes after surviving her self-immolation, albeit covered in third-degree burns, just to be locked away in a Chinese dissident prison anyway. But it’s a hell of a start to a TV show. Marketing an Australian political thriller can’t be easy. Having someone set themselves alight in the first few minutes is going to keep people watching.
And now, thanks to Secret City debuting on Netflix today after enjoying a run two years ago on Australia’s premium channel Showcase, people will inevitably be watching. The strong cast is led by Anna Torv, who impressed in the American sci-fi thriller Fringe and, more recently, in Netflix’s own Mindhunter. She’s Australian herself, as it happens, but I’m so used to her American accent that at first, I thought her native Australian one sounded fake. Presumably, she has enough of an overseas fanbase to tempt an audience for Secret City that didn’t realize they wanted a House of Cards-style exposé of Australian power-plays until they got one.
Torv plays Harriet Dunkley, a Press Gallery journalist out to connect the dots between the burned girl lost in the Chinese prison system, a lakeside corpse with his stomach ripped open, and the machinations of the slimy Minister of Defence (Dan Wyllie) whom Dunkley has long-since been eying for the misuse of union funds. It’s a dense tale, well-told, that eventually interlocks into a conspiracy that leans heavily against international political relations between Australia, America, and China.
Torv is reliably good here, playing her usual no-nonsense do-the-right-thing role, but she’s outshone by a who’s who of Australian TV talent, particularly Jacki Weaver as a power player in the Australian Labour Party, Damon Herriman as a senior analyst in the Australian Signals Directorate, and Alex Dimitriades as an intelligence officer in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Surrounded by other solid actors such as Marcus Graham, Sacha Horler, and Alan Dale, Secret City is fielding a first-team squad.
The story is adapted from the novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code, by veteran Canberra reporters Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis, so there’s no surprise that Secret City feels true to the inner-workings of the Australian government. There’s always a temptation in political thrillers to descend into hysteria, but Secret City, capably adapted by Matt Cameron, Belinda Chayko, and Greg Waters, maintains a deliberate pace and a great deal of restraint. That absence of a deeper, more sinister plot is sometimes felt, and I’m thankful the first season only ran for six episodes, but it also lends the scandals a believable, human quality most important to dramas of this sort: you believe there’s every chance they could be true.