'High Country' Is Australian TV's Latest Addictive Rural-Set Mystery — and Leah Purcell Is Superb at Its Centre

Victoria's alpine region provides the setting for this twisty detective tale, which pairs excellent performances with a compelling whodunnit.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 18, 2024

The role of Andie Whitford, the lead part in High Country, was written for Leah Purcell. It's easy to understand why. There's a quiet resolve to the character — a been-there-seen-that air to weathering tumult, too, and to knowing that she'll always have to fight hard for what she wants — that's long been a part of the Indigenous Australian star's acting toolkit across a three-decade career. Purcell first appeared on-screen in 90s TV shows such as GP, Police Rescue and Water Rats. In the past year before High Country, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart and Shayda also popped onto her resume. In-between, the 2000s brought Lantana, Somersault, The Proposition and Jindabyne — and the 2010s added Redfern Now, Last Cab to Darwin, Janet King and Black Comedy. Across three formats, as a play, a book and a movie, she also interrogated and reimagined Henry Lawson's The Drover's Wife in blistering fashion, and while writing, acting and directing.

It's thanks to Wentworth that High Country came Purcell's way, however. Creators Marcia Gardner and John Ridley worked with her there, then made this the trio's next shared project. The nuts and bolts of the series are solid anyway, but it joins the ranks of Aussie detective and mystery tales made all the better due to their main talent. Mystery Road, which High Country co-star Aaron Pedersen (High Ground) has led in films and on TV, was the same. Jack Irish, featuring Guy Pearce (The Clearing) as its namesake and also Pedersen as his righthand man, equally fits. So does The Dry and its sequel Force of Nature: The Dry 2, both with Eric Bana (Blueback) — the latter of which also used Victoria's alpine region as a backdrop, as does High Country.

Andie is a seasoned police detective who takes a job back in uniform overseeing the town of Broken Ridge, which is located in the mountainous Victorian spot that gives the show its moniker. While High Country might be the second Aussie effort in 2024's early months to embrace this part of the nation — among a small but growing wave of rural-set Down Under movies and programs that aren't traversing red earth, such as the Tasmanian-set Deadloch, The Gloaming and The Kettering Incident, too — it's no mere rehash there, or anywhere. High Country's framework, down to its character types, is easily recognisable. Gardner and Ridley know what everyone does, though: that a great story can make any whodunnit-driven procedural feel different, as can excellent casting.

A big reason for Andie's move: stability and work-life balance, aka relocating for the sake of her personal life with spouse Helen Hartley (Sara Wiseman, Under the Vines) and daughter Kirra (Pez Warner, making her TV debut). An existence-resetting tree change is meant to be on the cards, then, in a place where leafy vantages stretch over mountains and down into valleys as far as the eye can see. But her arrival, especially being installed as the new police chief, doesn't earn the sunniest of welcomes. Then there's the missing-person cases that swiftly start piling up, some old, some new, some previously explained by pointing fingers in specific directions. An absent doctor (Francis Greenslade, Irreverent) and the car he leaves behind is Andie's entry point, but that isn't the beginning or the end of the tale.

Also key to the series are Andie's retiring predecessor Sam Dryson (Ian McElhinney, The Boys in the Boat), who is fixated on the past disappearance of a young boy — and former teacher Damien Stark (Henry Nixon, The PM's Daughter), who he's certain is responsible, has become the town outcast as a result and contends that he's psychic. Andie is soon perched between them. She values Sam's advice, yet spies how fixated he is in his vendetta (one wall in his house is right out of the obsessed-cop playbook). At the same time, she enlists Damien as a consultant to help on active cases, hoping that he'll accidentally reveal his involvement in the process.

Ranger Owen Cooper (Pedersen) is one of the few other Indigenous faces in town; his teenage son Ben (Pedrea Jackson, Sweet As) quickly befriends Kirra. Throw in Rose De Vigny, the financially challenged proprietor (Linda Cropper, How to Stay Married) of a haven for artists, plus cop colleagues of varying help and loyalty (Romance at the Vineyard's Matt Domingo and Wyrmwood: Apocalypse's Luke McKenzie), and Broken Ridge doesn't lack in players. Rabble-rousing siblings (Boy Swallows Universe's Nathaniel Dean and The Clearing's Jamie Timony), town bigwigs (Geoff Morrell, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power) — the list goes on.

Crucially, no matter how many of High Country's characters feel as if they could've walked in from fellow Aussie fare, where the show takes them is always its own journey. The same is true of Andie, and not just within a homegrown context; Jodie Foster (Nyad) in True Detective: Night Country and Kate Winslet (The Regime) in Mare of Easttown have charted comparable paths, but never this exact route. Pivotal to giving High Country its own flavour is its sense of place — not merely as a source of picturesque sights, which Andie often takes in as a newcomer to these parts, but in getting entrenched in the ragtag Broken Ridge community. When Sam reflects early that disappearances and deaths are just what happens here, Andie is horrified. Digging into the motivation behind his words becomes another of her missions, and the series'.

With a wealth of fellow Wentworth alum behind the camera — Kevin Carlin (Ms Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries) and Beck Cole (Deadloch) direct; Craig Barden (The Rooster) and Darrell Martin (White Fever) are High Country's cinematographers — this is a probing affair. The surroundings that make us, and also hide our secrets, prove a canvas, a minefield and a map. Discovering what they contain in this small-town thriller makes for addictive viewing, unsurprisingly. And in Purcell as Andie, High Country has a discerning and determined guide to fuel not just one season and its mysteries, but hopefully much more to follow.

Check out the trailer for High Country below:

High Country streams via Binge. Read our interview with Leah Purcell

Images: Sarah Enticknap / Narelle Portanier.

Published on April 18, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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