Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Ruby in the Smoke - disjointed, disappointing

A brief review of the BBC's adaptation of Phillip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke, which aired on the 27th September. This was hugely disappointing. The narrative was horribly rushed, ensuring a disjointed production. If I had not read the novel before watching this, I would have given up halfway through in exasperation.

Billie Piper was passable in the lead role as Sally Lockhart. But, there is something all too modern in her air, which in many respects should lend itself well to Sally's forthright, proto-feminist character - but instead Piper always felt like she was trying too hard. She was also overshadowed by Hayley Atwell, in her few brief scenes as Rosa Garland, which does not bode well for Piper's prospects as Fanny Price in the ITV version of Mansfield Park, where she stars alongside Atwell, playing Mary Crawford. Even better was JJ Feild, taking on the role of Frederick Garland, Rosa's brother and Sally's friend (and clearly the subject of a mutual crush). Piper has a buoyant, pleasing presence, but although this was not her finest hour, nevertheless. she was far from dismal.

Sadly the same cannot be said of one of Britain's best-loved actresses Julie Walters, who played the pernicious Mrs Holland - Sally's arch-nemesis and a murderer to boot. Walters was excrutiatingly poor here, seemingly regurgitating her once famous role as the hilarious, crook-backed Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques, re-spun with a sneering, sinister twist. To be frank I had harboured doubts at Walters's casting in this role. There is something too spare, spry and light in her demeanour, her bearing, which to my mind, never quite suited the thuggish solidity of Mrs Holland.

Other notable castings included David Harewood, playing the Bedwell twins Nicholas and Matthew, Miles Anderson briefly as Major Marchbanks, and newcomer Matt Smith (who woefully underperformed) as the cockney cheeky chappy Jim Taylor. Chloe Walker made for an appealing Adelaide.

Brian Percival, the director, did precious little innovative with what was a fairly pedestrian adapted script from Adrian Hodges, who has fared better in the past with the mini-series Charles II: The Power & the Passion and an adaptation of Dickens's David Copperfield in 1999. He has now been hired to adapt the sequel, The Shadow in the North - which is perhaps a better novel, with a stronger plotline - and I sincerely hope he produces a stronger, more coherent and more 'cinematic' screenplay. In truth, this adaptation strived to keep close to the source text, but Pullman's original is a bit of a jumble - albeit enjoyable. Hodges would maybe have been better advised to re-draft wholesale, sections of this text.

Sets, scenery and location were fine if uninspiring. This period drama is not set to win awards, that's for sure. But it made for a pleasant enough evening's viewing, even though it was far from outstanding, and never better than average.

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