Friday, September 24, 2010

DVD Review: The Shadow in the North starring Billie Piper

People who appreciate the actress Billie Piper would enjoy watching the television adaption of Philip Pullman's novel The Shadow in the North. Piper stars as the heroine Sally Lockhart in this 2006 BBC-WBGH Boston co-production for public television's Masterpiece Mystery! series.

This DVD caught my eye at my public library because Billie Piper was in it. Like millions of other people, I know her as Rose from Doctor Who, and I really enjoy her acting. She is able to convey both broad-shouldered courage and quavering vulnerability and show how both emotional layers blend into each other.

The Shadow in the North proved to be a charming story that was fun, heartbreaking, and politically serious. Then it was all wrapped up with bittersweet delight. The story is a bit complicated and trying to explain it all would give away too many spoilers. In brief, it is set in 1878 London and Sally Lockhart runs her own financial consulting business. The story opens with her meeting a new client, retired schoolteacher Miss Walsh, who has lost her retirement savings in what should have been a decent investment in the Anglo-Baltic shipping company. But the shipping line collapsed after numerous ships were mysteriously lost. Walsh points out that the insurance company refused to pay claims because of the strange losses, and she believes she lost her money due to fraud and not rough seas.

Sally begins her investigation and seeks assistance from her private detective friends, the pleasingly handsome duo Frederick and Jim. Frederick is Sally's beau but their relationship is rocky because Sally fiercely defends her independence in an age when it is not allowed to women. Sally, despite her stylish clothes, can run with the best of them on the London streets. She has a gun and lives with a marvelously intimidating Great Dane.

Their joint investigation leads them to a stage magician and psychic medium who have similar visions of a murder. The magician is pursued by baton-wielding thugs. Sally's inquiries about Anglo-Baltic meanwhile have irritated the Russian industrialist Axel Bellman, who has set up a strange machine works in England. An unsavory representative of Bellman warns Sally to leave him alone, which only proves to her that he is guilty of at least fraud.

The ensuing adventures of Sally, Frederick, and Jim take them far beyond what was a fraud case as they uncover murder and a plan to build a terrifying weapon. The story ranges from fun to frantic to deadly serious. A wonderful steampunk sense of fun punctuates the action, especially in the character of Frederick as he poses as a researcher of the paranormal and connects his electrodermatograph to the ankles of a psychic medium.

The Shadow in the North also blends its historical setting with paranormal aspects such as clairvoyance and ghosts. This mystery offers charming entertainment that fans of Billie Piper should definitely put on their viewing lists. Don't let the appallingly dopey introduction by the series host Alan Cumming prevent you from watching it. Even Cumming appears ashamed of his stupid lines. Trust me, it gets much better once the story starts.