The Weekend's TV: The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Sun BBC1
Dirty Sexy Money, Fri, Channel 4
Monday 24 March 2008
It's genuinely sad that Anthony Minghella should have died so young, and it makes reviewing The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency a slightly awkward business. A popular bank holiday entertainment shouldn't have been the capstone to his career, and given a little time, it won't be. But following so closely on his death, it will inevitably be received as a parting gift, which is not a seemly thing to subject to criticism. It's a relief, then, to find that its merits are distinctively Minghella's own, and that in adapting Alexander McCall Smith's hugely popular and arguably emollient stories for the screen, he and Richard Curtis have found a way to stiffen their representation of African life without losing the sweet moral clarity of the originals.
Minghella was one of the more adept sentimentalists in British cinema, a director and writer unafraid of strong, uncomplicated feeling, but rarely exploitative about the way he summoned it. Richard Curtis is no amateur in this field either, so, as arid as the Botswanan landscape is, serious precipitation was pretty much guaranteed from the start. That said, the film did not begin promisingly, with a childhood sequence that showed the origins of Mma Ramotswe's detective skills, but also posed her alongside as many of the country's wildlife attractions as was feasible. It seemed to point to a thinly touristic vision of Africa as a kind of free-range zoo with a bit of tribal dancing attached.
But then Mma Ramotswe's father died and the funeral put you right, both with a beautiful sequence in which the assembled mourners started up an impromptu chorale and with the arrival of Note Makoti, Mma Ramotswe's abusive ex-husband, who stirred something wounded and pensive in her. To me, Jill Scott looked rather too young for the role, not at all the matronly figure I'd imagined from the books, but she had the calm self-possession just right, not to mention the "traditional build". "Have you seen the size of the detective?" asked a smart Gaborone office girl as they strolled past Mma Ramotswe's office. "She is the size of a small elephant – how could she go undercover?" Quite easily, it turned out, and particularly when the object of the investigation was a philandering husband with a penchant for the elephantine: "If my fattie wants an ice tea, I will climb a mountain to find one," he declared passionately, when he'd been honey-trapped by Precious, and the fact that Mma Ramotswe had to steel herself to resist his seduction rounded out her character in quite another sense.
There were occasional flickers of post-colonial unease, when you found yourself wondering whether it was condescending to enjoy Botswanan English so much, or to laugh at the way that straitened means got in the way of basic business efficiency (Grace Makutsi had to type all her letters on two machines, neither of which had a full complement of keys, but that between them covered most of the alphabet). But because you were also shown a contemporary Africa, all computers and business-park developments, it was clear that Mma Ramotswe was setting her face against modernity rather than that she had no choice. The thought also occurred that if equal standing means anything, then African characters are as entitled to be comically ridiculous as anyone. Anyway, such doubts didn't count for much when it came to the drama's conclusion, when a young boy who was assumed to have been murdered in a witchcraft killing was finally reunited with his father, and everybody, onscreen and off, I suspect, found themselves in tears. "Don't get emotional," someone said towards the end of the film. Ignore that. Do get emotional. It's what he would have wanted.
Emotions won't be required for Dirty Sexy Money, unless you count schadenfreude and appalled fascination. Channel 4's new buy-in features Donald Sutherland as Tripp, the patriarch of an uber-rich and uber-sleazy Manhattan family called the Darlings, and Peter Krause as Nick, their new lawyer. Nick's father worked for the Darlings as all-round legal gofer and cover-up man and Nick swore that he would never do the same, his childhood having taken second place to the whining dependency of his father's clients. But then Tripp made him an offer he couldn't refuse and Nick persuaded himself that this time it would be different. He was in the middle of explaining this to his wife when his mobile phone went off with the first demand and after that it was never silent. Already stacked up in his in-tray were an attorney general with a burly transvestite lover in the closet, a vicious priest with a love child and a poor little rich girl who still carried a torch for Nick, despite just having signed the pre-nups for her fourth marriage. Oh, and the murder of Nick's father, whose plane, it seemed, had some help in getting to the bottom of Long Island sound. Enjoy.
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