Swift Street review: Melbourne crime caper elevated by the cheeky charm of Cliff Curtis

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
Swift Street is on SBS from April 24.
Swift Street is on SBS from April 24. Credit: SBS

If you were told there’s a new Australian series set in Melbourne and it’s a gritty crime drama that explores the morally ambiguous actions of desperate characters, you might have one of two reactions.

For crime junkies, it’s exciting. They’re curious about anything that promises a dark trip down a dank alley, miscreants and ill intent lurking in the shadows.

For others, while it sounds like a worthy show that might have important things to say about our society, it also feels like hard work. Not the escapism you’re looking for after a long day.

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It’s as if Swift Street recognises that some crime shows need another layer, or another tone, to entice anyone that’s not a diehard genre obsessive. Especially when some version of most of those stories has been told before.

It’s the details that make all the difference.

Created by filmmaker Tig Terera as an ode to the dynamism of the city he grew up in, Melbourne, and its people, Swift Street has a secret weapon in one of its leads, New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis.

Swift Street on SBS.
Cliff Curtis and Tanzyn Crawford star in Swift Street. Credit: SBS

Curtis plays Robert, a hustler who’s always one bad move from meeting a sticky end, and this time he’s dancing right on the edge. In debt to a fierce gang boss called The Mechanic (Eliza Matengu) to the tune of $26,000, Robert thinks about ending things.

His terrible plan is foiled when his daughter Elsie (Tanzyn Crawford) walks in on his feeble attempt.

Elsie and Robert don’t have the best relationship, especially since her parents’ separation. But the complexity of her feelings towards her dad at least extends to not wanting to see him dead.

She reluctantly agrees to help him clear his debt. Neither have any money so in the style of Paper Moon, they team up as a father-and-daughter team of con artists and petty crimes.

Outright theft of a parking ticket machine nets little gain (we are almost a cashless society, you know) while other schemes range from the small scale such as befuddling someone to part with $50 after washing their windows at a traffic stop, to a real estate rental scam.

Swift Street on SBS.
Keiynan Lonsdale in Swift Street. Credit: SBS

There’s nothing quite like a parent-and-child bonding moment of breaking the law together.

Who needs therapy when you have the heart-in-your-throat risk of going to prison or losing to a gangster.

These sequences are playful and buoyant, largely off the back of Curtis’s cheeky charm and Crawford’s empathetic performance.

Robert is an old-school hustler and there’s great amusement in the plots he cooks up while Elsie sometimes steps in as the conscience so that the audience is still always on their side.

Swift Street is more caper than drama – the series is less effective when it moves away from Robert and Elsie to its supporting characters including a just-released-from-prison young man (Keiynan Lonsdale) who is forced into being the crime boss’s heavy, to provide a life for himself and his brother.

It’s a familiar trope but adds to Swift Street’s ambition to highlight a lesser-told aspect of Melbourne culture.

Swift Street wants to show that it’s not always an easy life with clear moral decisions, but it is an easy series to like.

Swift Street is on SBS from April 24

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