The Ruby in the Smoke – movie review

Description (from PBS):

Orphan Sally Lockhart (Billie Piper), schooled by her late father in shooting, bookkeeping and Hindustani, puts all her spunk and savvy to use inquiring into her father’s mysterious death. A cryptic letter advising her to beware of the “Seven Blessings” starts Lockhart down a harrowing path where she must brave assassins, opium dens and a homicidal crone, Mrs. Holland (Julie Walters). JJ Feild also stars in this adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Victorian-era thriller.


Filmed in 2006, this movie is like a time capsule – it hearkens back to a time when steampunk had yet to permeate pop culture. Watching this movie again makes me realize how much we’ve been conditioned to expect a flashy, steampunky kind of Victorian era. Let’s face it, most of us have seen Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes, or read Gail Carriger, Scott Westerfeld, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, etc. You might find plain old Victorian intrigue, like this movie, seems a little dull in comparison.

While this isn’t a spectacular movie, not by a long shot, it is solid enough to keep your interest. You’ll probably find it a little slow at times and occasionally a tad clunky – but Julie Walters is always fun to watch and she plays the evil crone to the hilt. See if you can recognize her (you probably know Julie Walters as the ballet teacher from Billy Eliot or Mrs. Weasley from Harry Potter) under all that makeup. Billy Piper (of Dr. Who fame) pulls off the lead with aplomb, despite being somewhat hamstrung by the lack of character work. Still, this is a story full of lurking menace, hashish, and murders – and it even has a dab of romance. While the mystery certainly isn’t Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes-worthy, there are enough reveals to keep you vested until the end. So maybe I’ve just got an England-sized soft spot for Victorian fun, but I think there’s enough here to be worth watching.

With regards to the source material – honestly Philip Pullman and I, in dating parlance, never quite hit it off. I don’t know why, exactly. I’ve read The Golden Compass, and after I watched this movie I read The Ruby in the Smoke and Shadow in the North, but I just am never entirely satisfied with his stories. Whatever my problem is, I find it bothers me a lot less in condensed movie form, so frankly I prefer the movie to the book. Definitely watch before you read.

All in all, The Ruby in the Smoke is a decent rental if you’re in the mood for old fashioned Victorian fun.

Book Opening:

On a cold, fretful afternoon in early October, 1872, a hansom cab drew up outside the offices of Lockhart and Selby, Shipping Agents in the financial heart of London, and a young girl got out and paid the driver.

She was a person of sixteen or so – alone, and uncommonly pretty. She was slender and pale, and dressed in mourning, with a black bonnet under which she tucked back a straying twist of blonde hair that the wind had teased loose. She had unusually dark brown eyes for one so fair. Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.