Botswana beauty

HBO does Alexander McCall Smith proud
By CLEA SIMON  |  March 16, 2009

GABARONE GUMSHOE Jill Scott inhabits the role of Precious Ramotswe with glowing confidence. 

As any fan of traditional mysteries knows, a good detective must pay attention to details. And Precious Ramotswe, the founder of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, finds that truer than most. For Ramotswe, the protagonist of Alexander McCall Smith's hugely popular Botswana-based mystery series, it's the little things — the call of a go-away bird, the sweet breath of cattle — that are the real point of life. Everything else, even solving the occasional crime, is minor.

In a book, this approach works. Smith allows his ever-expanding cast of characters to move at their own pace. By the time of Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, the 10th in the series (out next month), husbands have been acquired, children adopted, and friends made, but little else has changed. Botswana remains poised on the brink of modernity, with Ramotswe and her crew championing the traditional values of kindness, human connection, and the possibility of solving any problem over a cup of bush tea. But a series consciously constructed on the slow rhythms of age-old customs poses difficulties for the screen.

In his last completed project before his death in March 2008, director Anthony Minghella proved himself up to the challenge. His two-hour pilot episode of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, from a screenplay written with Richard Curtis and created for the BBC, understands the importance of the little things — and gets them mostly right. (The pilot screens on HBO beginning March 29 at 8 pm, with six episodes to follow.)

The cinematographers' visual shorthand is often stunning. Opening shots pan over Botswana's wetlands, settling into the dry plains bordering on the Kalahari, to show the country Ramotswe holds so dear. And once the action settles into Gabarone, where Ramotswe sets up shop, color and light (the show was shot on location) convey both the poverty and the optimism of this newly urbanizing community.

For a project that depends more on characters than on plotting, the HBO version does well. As Precious Ramotswe, Jill Scott is a revelation. The singer gained weight to inhabit Ramotswe's "traditional" build, and she does so with a glowing confidence. Her Ramotswe is large and in charge, sure of her sexual appeal despite the proliferation of skinny Western-style beauties, and British actor Lucian Msamati's sweetly shy JLB Matekoni is a suitable love interest. The wonderful supporting cast makes Smith's formal, slightly stilted English sound as natural as song. Most of these British and African actors will be unfamiliar to American viewers, though Idris Elba (The Wire) brings a Stringer Bell–like intensity to the gangster Charlie Gotso, the only real test of Ramotswe's mettle.

As Grace Makutsi, Ramotswe's difficult sidekick, Anika Noni Rose is the only stretch. Despite giving her textually correct oversized glasses, the filmmakers haven't made Rose plain enough to fit Makutsi as described in Smith's books. But by thrusting her chin forward as she makes her inappropriate remarks, the actress captures the defensive spirit of the homely secretary.

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