Fanging it down an outback road when he is rammed by a truck driver from hell, Jamie Dornan experiences a terrible accident that gives him amnesia – making him forget about all that bondage paraphernalia from Fifty Shades of Grey.
In the explosively entertaining six-part series The Tourist, created and written by Harry and Jack Williams, the Irish actor and former Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein studmuffin plays a louche loner who can’t remember who is he, what he is doing in Australia or why he appears to have “kill me” stamped figuratively speaking across his forehead.
Dornan joins a coterie of famous foreign actors who have been plonked in the thick of arid, unforgiving Australian land and left to fry in the sun for our dramatic amusement. See also: Gary Bond in Wake in Fright, who drank a lot of beer and went mad; Dennis Hopper in Mad Dog Morgan, who drank a lot of moonshine and went mad; Johnathon Schaech in Welcome to Woop Woop, who spent a lot of time with the locals and went mad; and soon to be Zac Efron in Gold, who, the trailer suggests, finds gold in them thar desert and then goes mad.
Come to think of it, Dornan’s character in The Tourist – billed as “The Man” – is pretty sane compared with these rather rabid fellows. He’s like Guy Pearce in Memento in that he’s determined but displaced (in this instance geographically as well as mentally) and constantly banging against the walls of his own mind. If the whole being rammed into near-oblivion wasn’t enough, “The Man” is also a mite concerned when, after meeting the friendly and charming Luci (Shalom Brune-Franklin) at a diner, there appears to be another (rather spectacular) attempt on his life.
The show’s central mystery has something to do with a man who has been buried alive and calls “The Man” from inside a barrel, begging to be found post-haste. Director Chris Sweeney (who helmed episodes one to three, with Daniel Nettheim steering the others) shoves a camera inside a tight coffin-esque space, evoking memories of Ryan Reynolds in Buried.
A big, beefy, cowboy shirt-wearing villain emerges in Billy (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), who whistles cheerfully but with absolute menace, his merry tune a harbinger of impending doom. In the series’ second half, Alex Dimitriades emerges as another prominent bad guy, hamming it up in super-villain style.
Certain characters aren’t who they say they are, though that does not apply to Helen Chambers – a fair dinkum what-you-see-is-what-you-get probationary constable battling with low self-esteem. She is superbly portrayed by Danielle Macdonald (who played the gossip columnist Lillian Roxon in I am Woman), bringing loads of colour and detail to what could have been the simple sweet hick. Macdonald’s performance vividly contrasts with the rough and tough Dornan – also perfect in a high-intensity role as a man who is something of a blank slate, frightened by who he is or who he may be. There are philosophical questions about identity to ponder – if viewers pause for a breather and stop chewing their nails – including to what extent each of us are defined by our past actions.
There’s also an oddly good performance from the ever-reliable Damon Herriman, offsetting his recent menacing work by playing a detective inspector in a way that’s both funny weird and funny ha-ha, suiting the show’s quite dry approach to comedy. Many scenes are humorous in a cagey way, sans explicit signposting: at one point for instance we discover a traffic pile-up has been created by two turtles rooting in the middle of the road. Elsewhere, in the aftermath of an intense confrontation, in a shot one could imagine belonging to a Coen brothers movie, the show cuts to a framed picture on a wall bearing the following message: “LIFE IS MADE OF CHOICES. WIPE YOUR FEET OR SCRUB THE FLOOR.”
The Tourist is very well shot by Ben Wheeler and Geoffrey Hall (who was also the cinematographer for Chopper, Red Dog: True Blue and Eden), with colour grading that’s a little off, a little sickly, as if the blues and greens (hard to find in arid outback) in particular have been poisoned from the inside. This is a clever way of visualising the feeling that something isn’t quite right. Sweeney and Nettheim (whose directorial work includes episodes of Halifax: Retribution, Tidelands and Line of Duty) establish a cracker pace that creeps, creeps, creeps up on you, then explodes with a great big thunderclap of action then creeps, creeps, creeps up again.
The “bugger me dead, it’s hot!” action-thriller, as it shall henceforth be known, is by now very familiar, but The Tourist is different: a pulse-pounder that feels fresh despite many genre elements, particularly of the neo-noir variety. The show has a great forwards and backwards momentum, contrasting cliffhanger moments with questions about the past and the ambiguities therein. It’s a vision of Australiana that’s less “where the bloody hell are you?” than who the bloody hell are you, and what the bloody hell will happen next? And – summarising my personal response – bloody hell, this is good.