The star of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries swaps glamour for a habit in a dark tale of war between the feminine and the masculine
“Not at all tame” is how Essie Davis describes her wild new Australian drama series, Lambs of God. Five minutes into the first episode, and it’s clear she’s underselling it.
The show begins with a trio of “feral nuns” (as it was apparently phrasedwhen pitched to Foxtel) meeting a priest, knocking him unconscious, shaving him down, binding his legs and holding him captive in their remote island convent.
By comparison, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s dalliance with the priest on Fleabag seems positively chaste.
The nuns are played by Davis, Ann Dowd (AKA Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale) and Jessica Barden (from the Netflix hit The End of the F***ing World). Sam Reid features as the “unspiritual” Father Ignatius, who intrudes on this lonely sisterhood with a plot to sell their land for a profit. The elder sisters suss out his intentions early, hence the kidnapping, though Barden’s young Sister Carla, having not stepped off the island before, succumbs to his wiles. During the four-episode miniseries, he becomes her plaything, especially the part of him that Sister Carla nicknames “baby Moses”.
This current trend of illicit lustfulness towards the clergy (consider, too, The Young Pope featuring the regularly shirtless Jude Law) may seem like a weird cultural overcorrection given recent, awful, real events, but it’s a familiar Australian trope, popularised back in the 80s and 90s through shows like The Thorn Birds and Brides of Christ.
Yet Davis, who plays the curt Sister Iphigenia, doesn’t want you thinking this adaptation of Marele Day’s 1998 novel goes soft on men of the cloth.
“I think the Roman Catholic Church is currently in such a broken place,” she says. “This [show] will actually be quite uplifting for those who have had faith, and can see the hypocrisy, but still find spiritualism within it.”
She’s referring to the “sometimes pagan” practice of the nuns in the show, which involves a belief that the Sisters who died before them have been reincarnated as the lambs for which they now care.
“These women are connected to the earth and to the spirituality of faith that is so profoundly honest, and not this politicised, male-dominated reorganising of the Bible and the Roman Catholic religion as a patriarchy. It may not feel like a ‘correct’ law-abiding Roman Catholic kind-of sisterhood, but it is very beautiful,” she says.
Davis calls Lambs of God – adapted by Sarah Lambert and helmed by Ali’s Wedding filmmaker Jeffrey Walker – “a war between the feminine and the masculine and [a stand] for womankind.” Not to mention: “an escapist tale, and a fairytale, and a thriller, and a comedy.”
As Iphigenia, Davis is far from the fineries of Phryne Fisher, the chic and quick-witted flapper sleuth she inhabits in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Here, she is transformed, with severe cropped hair and hushed, clipped speaking voice. When she’s introduced to Father Ignatius, her face is covered in animal blood; at times, her eyes become cloudy as she’s overcome by second sight.
“I do find that if I’m really scared of playing something, it really excites me at the same time as I’m super worried that I’m just gonna fail big time; [that] I’m gonna be covered in omelette,” she laughs.
“It was a great challenge and very complicated all the way through. And each of us four actors really held each other’s hands, as if we were doing some kind of skydive routine, trying to pull our forces outwards against the force of gravity and create something marvellous to look at.”
As one of Australia’s most versatile and daredevilish actors (see her go for broke in the brilliant horror allegory, The Babadook), she’s glad to have avoided becoming typecast throughout her career by always “trying very hard to tread new ground”.
“That sort of helps me live a quite lovely life with a great deal of anonymity in it as well, because I feel like I’m not recognised as a particular group of characters,” she says.
She doesn’t expect to revive Sister Iphigenia, insisting Lambs of God is not going to be extended, in the style of The Handmaid’s Tale, beyond the parameters of its book adaptation.
“I don’t think anyone needs to revisit these characters,” she says. “They face their own stories, and when they do, they find a sense of completion. And I think it is a complete story.”
• Lambs of God is showing on Foxtel’s Showcase from 8.30pm Sunday 21 July