Black Snow, review: this middling Aussie crime drama at least tries something different

Eden Cassady in Black Snow
Eden Cassady in Black Snow - BBC

Black Snow (BBC Four), an imported Australian crime drama, is a bizarre amalgam of the clichéd and the really quite interesting. In the hackneyed column we have a detective, James Cormack (played by Travis Fimmel), so weltschmerzed and careworn he looks like a bin. Cormack puts himself on a cold case in a small rural community where they don’t like city folk and they do things the way they always have.

All of the stock characters – the churchman, the farmer, the teacher at the school – seem nice and helpful but peel back the layers, as Mr Big City lawman must inevitably do, and they have more secrets than Would I Lie to You without the jokes. The show takes bites from Broadchurch, True Detective series one, Top of the Lake and Mare of Easttown, without reaching the quality of any of the above.

Black Snow is founded on a toothsome, Christie-esque premise: the town of Ashford, in rural North Queensland, gathers to unearth a time capsule buried by high-school students back in 1994. Among the 1990s knick-knacks is a letter penned by Isabel Baker (Talijah Blackman-Corowa) a student of the Class of ’94… who was murdered shortly after taking part in the project. Isabel’s letter instantly sends up a suspicion flare that shines back down on little old Ashford.

The time capsule is a clever wheeze through which to dredge up an old case, but if you’re feeling picky it doesn’t really wash: if Isabel’s murder has gone unsolved because of a lack of any evidence, as the cops keep saying, surely one of them might have thought to crack open the time capsule in which she left her last written pronouncement (aka some evidence).
Yet Black Snow can be forgiven an awful lot, because in spite of its many flaws it has one point of difference. That is its setting, both cultural and literal. Serving the latter, the photography is superb, Eric Murray Lui’s wide-angled camera revelling in North Queensland’s endless plains.

Serving the cultural aspect, there are two stories being told here: Isabel’s murder touches upon historical faultlines going back to how the South Sea Islander community, of which Isabel was a member, came to be working the vast canefields of North Queensland in the first place. By episode two it’s been spelt out: they were kidnapped and imported as slaves. This heinous crime is a toxin with a long half-life.

The fissures and resentment it has left are subtly but brilliantly evoked, it exists under a shadow of what’s not being said throughout. Black Snow may not be the best crime drama of the year, but it does at least try to investigate a much broader injustice than just whodunit.

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