THE SHADOW IN THE NORTH


BBC1 - 30th December - 8.55pm

For me, this was the other television highlight of the Christmas season. I thoroughly enjoyed last year's adaptation of Philip Pullman's 'The Ruby In The Smoke' and was therefore looking forward to this immensely. And I have to say that Adrian Hodges' adaptation of 'The Shadow In The North' surpassed that of last year.

It opens with two dark figures against a bright white background, out of focus, with one of them committing a murder. Next we see blood dripping off a knife and then cut to a body, under the ice, floating away, eyes staring blankly heavenwards. Thus, the Gothic tone is admirably set and so too is John Anderson's breathtaking direction. His trademark is a mix of deep focus, wide shots with blurred figures suddenly springing into clarity and some dizzying crane shots. There's an opening shot of the villain's lair that spirals over a set of gates and then swoops down to capture Sally Lockhart's (Billie Piper) entrance, there's a conversation between the villain Axel Bellmann (Jared Harris) and a blackmailed victim that dives from an overhead into a very low angle shot and finally a bravura bit of editing and composition at a seance as a medium, off in a trance, starts to provide some of the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of the plot.

The plot does have its twists and turns and the adaptation crams in an awful lot of narrative in 90 minutes and if you don't keep a focus on what's going on and who is connected to whom then you might have a tendency to wander off. It all starts when one of Sally's investors loses her money in a scam by Scandinavian industrialist Axel Bellmann. The plot about the development of a super-weapon by a twisted industrialist who rips off share holders feels very contemporary and the moral choices of the lead characters are equally as relevant.

As Sally digs deeper and connects the dots between a stage magician, a medium and a super-weapon we're taken on a mad ride through the Victorian streets, appropriately full of gas lamps, hansom cabs and fog. It's a beautifully mounted production and thanks to Anderson's direction it looks ravishing and he captures fully the details of the superb production design and costumes, uses the amazing locations to eye popping effect and gets some decent performances into the bargain.

Billie Piper is very good as Sally, feisty and independent with a quite marvellous parade of couture that matches her wits when facing up to the criminals. I did get mesmerised by her eyebrows at one point during the rather unconvincing bedroom scene between her and Fred (J.J. Fields) and she does do quite a bit of blubbing after her dog snuffs it during a savage attack on the street but her numbness when Fred gets killed in a house fire is quietly magnificent. J.J. Fields is less convincing for me and there is rather a lot of 'will they-won't they' between him and Sally when you know full well that they 'will' at some point after some emotional crisis melts Sally's heart (yes, it'll be the pet dog's untimely death). Jared Harris is impressive as the smoulderingly evil Axel and he's now a dead cert for casting as a Bond villain as he comes across here as a sort of Victorian Blofeld. Less said about Julian Rhind-Tutt's Scottish accent the better as he didn't really pull that off as the rather drippy stage magician Mackinnon.

But uneven performances aside, it's all done with great aplomb and you definitely feel you've been immersed in the period setting and done a fair bit of detecting along with Sally and her motley gang. Beautifully and satisfyingly done here, the plan is to adapt the next two books and I for one cannot wait for further Sally Lockhart adventures!

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