Masterpiece Theatre: The Ruby in the Smoke



9-10:30 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 4
KCET (Los Angeles)

You don't find too many dogs on "Masterpiece Theatre," and "The Ruby in the Smoke" certainly isn't one, either. It's a mystery yarn that fairly crackles in the greatest tradition of the franchise, unraveling its tangled web with unhurried brilliance in telling a story based on the 1985 novel by Philip Pullman that introduced teen sleuth Sally Lockhart to the world.

As Sally, British actress Billie Piper displays a hardened aloofness that can be off-putting but is most often bracing. She doesn't try overly hard to make us like her, which oddly enough makes her likable in itself. It's rare to find a self-reliant orphan who was schooled by her late father in everything from how to handle a gun to bookkeeping to Hindu studies. At an age when her adolescent contemporaries still are trying to find themselves, she's poking around to uncover killers. Petty nifty stuff for such a youngster.

Of course, the story of "Ruby" is set more than a century ago. It's 1872, and Sally's dad has died in the sinking of the schooner Lavinia during an investigation in the South China Sea. A letter alerts our heroine to beware of the Seven Blessings, which confuses her as much as it does us. It doesn't help that the first guy Sally mentions this "Seven Blessings" business to, her father's old friend Major Marchbanks (Miles Anderson), drops dead on the spot in mortal fear.

After a journal left by her father for Sally is stolen right out from under her, she finds herself in a life-and-death struggle over a missing giant ruby that is coveted by Mrs. Holland (an earth-scorchingly sinister performance by Julie Walters), an old hag who is so evil she has no first name. No self-respecting first name would have her. Thus commences a chase that leads Sally through opium dens and rough-and-tumble clergymen. Accompanying her on this deadly wild goose journey are a handsome photographer (JJ Feild), an office boy (Matt Smith) and a pair of gregarious twin brothers (both played by David Harewood).

The script by Adrian Hodges, adapted from Pullman's novel, hits all of the right notes in keeping the action moving with chilling yet restrained believability. Brian Percival's direction is spot-on, keeping his actors engaged and animated. Walters' performance in particular is a revelation. She is the very embodiment of malevolence; we're never quite sure where her head will take her from one moment to the next. To be honest, Piper sometimes gets lost inside the story while trying to compete with Walters' sheer wickedness. But she does acquit herself well by not trying to do, or be, too much. She thus mostly blends seamlessly into an adventure that's at once bloodless and bloody good.

BBC and WGBH/Boston
Executive producers: Sally Woodward Gentle, Rebecca Eaton
Producer: Kate Bartlett
Line producer: Louise Mutter
Director: Brian Percival
Teleplay: Adrian Hodges
Adapted from the novel by: Philip Pullman
Director of photography: Peter Greenhalgh
Production designer: Donal Woods
Costume designer: James Keast
Editor: Kristina Hetherington
Composer: Martin Phipps
Visual effects: Lola
Dubbing mixer: Stuart Hilliker
Casting director: Jill Trevellick
Sally Lockhart: Billie Piper
Mrs. Holland: Julie Walters
Frederick Garland: JJ Feild
Matthew Bedwell/Nicholas Bedwell: David Harewood
Jim Taylor: Matt Smith
Rosa Garland: Hayley Atwell
Mr. Berry: Tony Maudsley
Samuel Selby: Robert Glenister
Mr. Hopkins: Don Gilet
Major Marchbanks: Miles Anderson
Adelaide: Chloe Walker
Mrs. Rees: Sian Thomas