The Shadow in the North

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Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28 (KCET Los Angeles).

LOS ANGELES -- The BBC and WGHB have taken Philip Pullman's novel (nominally a children's book) about international intrigue (the Russians are coming!) and the supernatural amid an almost caricaturishly repressed Victorian setting and imbued it with scary overtones and a subtle undertow that could draw a whole new audience to PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery!" series.

Although the plot is as full of holes as the infernal killing machine that is at the center of the efforts by Sally Lockhart (played by Billie Piper), Fred Garland (JJ Feild) and Jim Taylor (Matt Smith) to unravel a puzzle that seems without end, the rational in the world that writer Adrian Hodges and director Brian Percival create is strictly subordinate to the irrational, the dark and the violent. In fact, the key to the production is the opening scene that drips with blood and mystery.

Because the story is told as a quickly, often abruptly, cut slideshow of storyboard panels, the acting is more a series of one-dimensional feints, gestures, bursts of energy and bold stabs in the dark than conventionally sustained thespian passages.

In such a context, Piper (who looks more in her 20s than the "scrappy teen" she is supposed to be) and Jared Harris as the archvillain score primarily with their looks and attitude. By contrast, Feild, Taylor and Julian Rhind-Tutt as an elegant opportunist of a magician inject a welcome breath of life into the proceedings. The rest of the cast is equally outstanding, down to the smallest roles, one particularly notable example being Nitin Ganatra, who is absolutely brilliant as a patents clerk.

The production looks expensive, with rich visual shades of black and red, and costuming that's all set for Halloween. John Lunn's music is an expert combination of slashing Hitchcockian psycho music with a suitably sentimental Victorian subtext.

Overall, it's a lot of bang for the buck, and the producers are likely to be keenly interested in the response of the usually conservative "Masterpiece Mystery!" audience.

Production: BBC and WGBH. Cast: Billie Piper, JJ Feild, Jared Harris, Dona Croll, Matt Smith, Julian Rhind-Tutt. Executive producers: Rebecca Eaton, Sally Woodward Gentle. Producer: Kate Bartlett. Director: Brian Percival. Writer: Adrian Hodges. Based on the book by: Philip Pullman. Editor: Roy Sharman; Casting director: Jill Trevellick.

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