The Ruby in the Smoke (2006)
Masterpiece is better known as a stage for proper costume dramas like Downton Abbey or Jane Austen miniseries. Way back when, novels by Phillip Pullman were adapted in what producers probably hoped could become more of a mainstay on our television screens. Instead all that was ever shot was a follow-up sequel. For a mystery, Ruby in the Smoke is more smoke and mirrors than clever.
Armed with only a mysterious note referencing the “seven blessings” and a head for numbers, young Sally Lockhart (Billie Piper) sets out with determination – and a small pistol – to expose the questions surrounding her father’s death. Haunted by dreams that she cannot interpret, the note leads Sally to one of her father’s long ago fellow shipmate who hands her a book that has all the answers but after it is stolen from her, Sally learns she has a deadly enemy by the name of Mrs. Holland (Julie Walters) leading her to take shelter in the home of the artistic Fredrick Garland (JJ Feild). Along with the support of the street-wise Jim (Matt Smith) and Rosa (Hayley Atwell), Fred’s sister, Sally’s childhood reality unmasks one of the greatest thefts – an exquisite jewel that has caught the eye of more than one potential enemy.
Victorian mysteries are something of a rarity. My idea of a jolly good mystery is usually set in the 1940’s to say nothing of contemporary spy thrillers – which are popular at my house. On the surface, this film is quite good. It does everything right with contrasting shadows and light vs. dark filming to set the mood of a scene but it misses its marking, never fully morphing into a “great” mystery. Ducking and weaving in and out of clues that do lead somewhere, the script isn’t that original. Clocking in at eighty-six minutes, the pacing is actually quite good boiling down a novel of more epic proportions and using the cast to keep the viewer curious if not totally confused – an attribute that if done properly, a thriller should embrace.
Helping to off-set darker subjects is the lovely costume design. Stunning patterned bustled dresses and white shirt, waist coated, and brocade vested gentleman. Some of the pieces that costume designers put together are not always pleasing but within the staging of the scene, everything does look pretty – whether it’s a parlor or walking down a busy street. Then there are the characters that are actually a fun bunch. Jim has a surprisingly good heart, full of compassion and a protective nature. Sally takes more warming too. I liked her but felt as if her character was more of a contradiction than a study in good character. Admiring her spunk and fearlessness is one thing that is easy to like in such a heroine and then there are the prideful decisions she makes that make us want to shake sense into her – it’s an igneous error that too many leading ladies suffer the omen of.
Lest it suggest otherwise, I would like to clarify that this is a good movie. The style of its filming lends credence to the fact that it is meant to be a mystery first and foremost, and for a more “lighthearted” title in the genre, it is entertaining. It mixes two delightful types of stories and features a young, fresh-faced cast – one who would go on to be an Austen hero, a girl who once was a favorite “companion,” and another who was about to break out as a loveable sci-fi icon. Fans of the cast or costume dramas should check into this one; those who may have reservations of opium induced dreams or some unresolved plots, you should be aware that some of the subjects could be “troubling” but as a fictional piece of ambiguity, this is a decent production – the villain is surprisingly more chilling than you anticipate and the unanswered questions leave us gasping for more. Its greatest flaw is getting lost in the smoke rather than focus its lens on the better points building whatever mysterious potential it could have had.
(Parental review; flashbacks show a murder in quick, successive shots – blood does splatter a by-stander. Two or three scenes take place inside an opium establishment, one person is an addict and a character smokes in order to enter a dream. Four or more people are murdered; one is cut across the throat, and another is stabbed. More still are shot or otherwise threatened; a young girl disappears after being ill-treated by her mistress – she finds bones of the girl whom she replaced. The film rates TVPG.)