Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
Our rating: 4 out of 5
Victorian murder mysteries are few and far between, both because the novels of the times were either contemporary love stories or gothic drama. Then the BBC decided to adapt the Sally Lockhart novels by Phillip Pullman. The result is an exciting, fast-moving, multi-talented production that is a bit too confusing for its own good, but decent enough to keep you watching.
After the death of her father in a shipping accident at sea, nineteen year old Sally Lockhart (Billie Piper) is forced to move into the home of her contemptible aunt until other arrangements can be made. Left without a penny to her name and no prospect of agreeable employment due to her limited skills, Sally is taken quite unawares when it soon becomes apparent that her father's friends are systematically being eliminated. Summoned to the home of one of her father's former associates, Major Marchbanks (Miles Anderson), she is given a journal and warned that her life is in danger. Shortly thereafter, the major is murdered by a woman attempting to manipulate him, the cruel and cunning Mrs. Holland (Julie Walters).
The reason for so much recent bloodshed in the district has to do with a missing ruby taken from the collection of a wealthy maharajah during the recent wars in India. With the help of her newfound friends Fred (JJ Feild) and Rosa Garland (Hayley Atwell), Sally must unravel the mysterious cipher and unearth the ruby before Mrs. Holland's reign of brutal violence envelopes all those Sally cares about. On its own merits, the film is quite good, with a truly astounding array of twists and turns, and fantastic acting from all involved. However, it moves so rapidly that the audience at times becomes lost in the complicated plot. We bounce back and forth between characters we have never heard of but are expected to know on sight. In short, the film is relying on the belief that its viewers have read the book, rather than attempting to portray the plot adequately for newcomers.
Added to this is a certain amount of political correctness from the casting department that will make sticklers for authenticity raise their brows. There are several black cast members that are excellent in their roles, but out of place in predominantly-white Victorian England. It's difficult to imagine that in such a socially racist age, a black man could even attend seminary, much less become minister of a parish. That aside, once I finally caught on to the plot (twenty minutes in) it did manage to keep my attention and overwhelmed my brain with some truly wonderful surprises. It's much more exciting than most dramas in the genre, proving that a decent Victorian mystery can be produced with the right musical score and material. The characters are also quite memorable, from the murderous Mrs. Holland to the comical but sweet errand boy who takes it upon himself to look after Sally.
There is nothing here that most older audiences could be concerned with, however I strongly encourage you to put the little ones to bed. This is one of the most violent productions I have seen in years. Numerous people are stabbed, with deadly results; one is shot and killed; another has his throat cut. A little girl is physically pushed around and smacked; there are three brutal fist-fights between a street thug and a main character, in which one man is beaten so roughly that he can barely walk. Mrs. Holland threatens her child servant with death, and it's implied the girl finds the body of her predecessor in the garden. Various characters smoke opium; Sally indulges in order to enter one of her childhood nightmares and remember the series of events leading up to a murder. Language consists of a dozen abuses of "bloody," "bleeding," and several of "buggar." No sensuality is present, but a mild implication that a woman exchanged her virtue for a price in the past.
Many emotions swirled through my head watching The Ruby in the Smoke. I wished it had slowed down a bit, and taken more time to develop each twist and turn rather than thrusting them all upon us at once; I thought it was beautifully costumed and acted; and I hoped at its conclusion that the follow-up episode would not be long in coming, for while it does clear up most matters, it also leaves one or two hanging.