“I mean to have that ruby”
The Ruby from the Smoke is the first in a series of four books featuring adventuring lead character Sally Lockhart. Here a mysterious message received from her father just before he drowned in the South China Seas sets her on a dangerous journey which starts with a man dying in front of her very eyes at the mere mention of what is contained within. She is then drawn into a mystery involving the opium trade, the fabled Ruby of Agrapur and even secrets from her own family history as her life is under constant peril from the dastardly Mrs Holland.
This was one of those things that I pretty much knew I was going to love from the moment I heard about it, but it certainly does help that I do really like the actress that Billie Piper has become. There’s an inner strength to her as well as a richly warm quality that is highly endearing and ideally suited to this modern figure of a woman, challenging Victorian notions of womanhood as she strives to uncover the truth. And Pullman writes extremely well for his female characters, something carried over in Adrian Hodges’ screenplay, as Hayley Atwell’s Rosa makes a sterling ally for Sally and as the evil Mrs Holland, Julie Walters makes a convincing villain. Obviously casting against type, it is an astonishingly effective performance, exuding huge malevolence and full of spine-chilling touches – the false teeth in particular – it’s a vein of work she ought to pursue a little more.
JJ Feild, so very very handsome, has good chemistry with Piper as the potential love interest who winds up helping out in many ways; Matt Smith, making his televisual debut here, is a charismatic presence though strangely unconnected to much of the story and the choice to have him voiceover certain sections was gratingly annoying, especially with his cock-er-nee accent; and a certain Mr Elliot Cowan – of whose work I am a little aware – makes his mark as a mysteriously dark character who appears late on, though it is always a shame when someone you like isn’t featured quite as much as one would have hoped for!
Personally, I think The Ruby in the Smoke is a highly effective translation of Pullman’s work onto the screen. It is a strong BBC adaptation, full of talent – I’ve not even mentioned the likes of David Harewood, Sian Thomas and Trevor Cooper in smaller roles – and very much in tune with the author’s intent. There is no shying away from the darkness and violence that lies at the heart of the story – how could a tale about drug smuggling and death be effective otherwise – and so a job well done all round.