There’s always got to be a twist. In 2023, the path of true crime never runs smoothly – and SBS’s latest documentary series The Mission does not disappoint on that front.
Even before we get to the crime, the set-up is throwing up questions. How does a Spanish Benedictine monastery get into the outback an hour’s drive from Perth, and what’s it doing with an art collection described by some as ‘priceless’?
Host Marc Fennell, who has prior form hosting documentaries tackling both religion (The Kingdom) and art theft (Framed), moves things professionally through some essential scene setting. Rising incongruously from a fairly barren setting, the monastery at the heart of the small town of New Norcia is a collection of vast European-style buildings. Founded in the mid-19th century, it was a settlement inhabited by monks who never threw anything out and whose main work, as one journalist puts it, ‘was prayer’.
Somewhat surprisingly considering how little cash prayer brings in, the monks also had a gallery of some 80 or 90 European paintings stretching back to medieval times. As the monastery increasingly became run down, it remained a treasure trove in the middle of nowhere – and like a lot of treasure troves, eventually someone came along to raid it.
Western Australia in the mid-80s was a state moving up in the world. The economy was booming, people were feeling good about things, and having a high-profile art heist was just one more thing putting them on the map. At the news of the crime, the newly formed Major Crimes Squad (all six detectives) swung into action – it was their first ever case – and quickly figured out that things really didn’t add up.
A lot of the fun of the first episode comes from just how inept the criminals turn out to be. The crude way the paintings were cut from their frames was only the beginning; it doesn’t take long before the whole thing starts to look more like comedy than high-stakes drama.
The mix of interviews and re-enactments used to tell the story keeps the mood light, cutting between still disbelieving retired cops and wry performances from the actors playing the bungling crims.
But while the criminals aren’t masterminds and their scheme is easily foiled, a few loose threads remain. Tugging on them leads to more twists, as Fennell heads off to the Philippines to try and answer the questions behind the heist, before returning to New Norcia to dig down into the history of the monastery and what was really stolen there.
Colourful characters, quirky angles, and a serious undertone: The Mission ticks all the true crime boxes. The pace flags here and there, in part because the three episode structure means some angles are drawn out a little while others are condensed down. But there’s a steady stream of interesting real-life experts, plus some quality comedy acting (especially in the first episode) to keep even the slower moments engaging.
This isn’t a series that plays around with the form. The story, with all its twists and angles, is the star here. But there is the occasional fourth-wall tweak; the real-life crims made their getaway in a gold 80s Ford Falcon, which was rare then (note to criminals: don’t have a memorable getaway car) and impossible to find now. Fennell’s advice to the audience during that stretch of the re-enactment? ‘Use your imagination’.
Fennell has been doing this kind of thing for a while now and this series uses him well, keeping his on-camera appearances in interviews largely to moments of astonishment or incredulity while letting him serve as a guide through the increasingly complex international web of cops and crims and forgers and dealers. He’s a safe pair of hands, and he doesn’t fumble here.
When the focus shifts back to New Norcia, the tone shifts again. The revelations are sadly less surprising – though the story still has a shock development or two up its sleeve – but they provide an essential human side to what we’ve been watching. As far as the art theft goes, everything pretty much is resolved; the twists that make The Mission memorable are the ones it takes along the way.
The three-part series The Mission premieres 8.30pm Tuesday 24 October on SBS. New episodes air weekly, with the entire series available on SBS On Demand