HBO is premiering “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” roughly a year to the date of Anthony Minghella’s death. This is a sad coincidence, but also a good chance to stop and recall the sublimely talented writer and director of “The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain” and, lest we never forget, “Truly Madly Deeply.”
The two-hour pilot for “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” which he directed and co-wrote with Richard Curtis, is effectively Minghella’s final credit and it can be watched in various ways. It’s obviously the point of introduction for HBO’s ongoing series and to Alexander McCall Smith’s series of novels, but it’s also a satisfying stand-alone telefilm, should you only require a sampling.
[More on Sunday (March 29) night’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” premiere after the break…]
For those uninitiated into Smith’s series, “Agency” focuses on Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott) who sells her late father’s cows and moves to Gaborone, capital of Botswana, to start a detective agency. Precious isn’t a trained detective, but she’s very observant and plenty of current TV favorites — “Lie to Me,” “The Mentalist,” et al — have taught us that little else is required to be a good gumshoe. Precious has a gifted, if peculiar, secretary in Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose) and she can always count on the assistance of flamboyant hairdresser BK (Desmond Dube) and faithful mechanic JLB Matekoni (Lucian Msamati).
There’s something invariably colonialistic about a series about black Africans in which the lead roles are played by American actresses and nearly all of the major creative forces are white Brits. It doesn’t help that at least half of the characterizations are condescending to the point of caricature, barely removed from something Rudyard Kipling would have written over 100 years ago. But the alternative is… nothing. This was the way this world could have been presented and represented for an international audience, so all you can do is acknowledge that Minghella and Curtis and the team behind the subsequent series episodes have taken as much care as anyone could have hoped for.
Shot on location in Botswana by Oscar nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement”), the “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” was being viewed as a possible theatrical release, but the story is better suited television. Minghella and Curtis both cut their teeth on British TV and while the scale of “Agency” isn’t exactly intimate — McGarvey has too much appreciation for the texture and color of the Botswana vistas for that — the series isn’t really about thrilling investigative work or engrossing mysteries. It about the sort of cases that this particular character might encounter in this version of Africa.
Minghella’s films were always elevated by his ability to infuse them with musicality — think Jack White’s work on “Cold Mountain,” or the centrality of Blue Note jazz to “Mr. Ripley.” In “Agency,” Oscar winner Gabriel Yared supplies the score, but it’s the native music, traditional and choral pieces, plus new recordings, that bring the pilot to life. Scott only sings once, but she seems capable of bursting into song at any minute because the music is all around.
As played by Scott, Precious is one of the most likable TV characters in some time. Although she’s come out of an abusive marriage and lost her only child, Precious is a relentless optimist, believing in both her own abilities and also in the natures of those around her. But she isn’t blindly optimistic. She knows that Botwana is a country stuck on the road to modernity and that just because progress is being made doesn’t mean that there aren’t traditions, superstitions and entrenched customs and beliefs making that transition difficult.
Precious isn’t just Botswana’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective. She’s Botswana’s only lady detective and her gender leads to as many preconceptions as the fact that she is, as she puts it, “of traditional build.”
I’m not saying that a couple episodes of “Girlfriends” and a Tyler Perry movie aren’t sufficient evidence of acting aptitude, but kudos to Minghella for having confidence that Grammy-winning singer Scott was capable of carrying a production this ambitious. It’s very early to talk about such things, but Scott’s is the sort of eye-opening performance that awards voters remember at year’s end.
As open and welcoming as Scott’s Precious is, Rose’s Grace is tightly coiled and rigid. It’s a natural and perfect comic pairing and Minghella and Curtis gladly underplays the importance of their cases to concentrate on this central relationship (and Precious’ ties to JLB and BK). I’m not expert enough to know the accuracy of Scott and Rose’s accents, but their consistency is outstanding, which is all I require.
Most of the supporting roles in the early episodes are played by African actors, though the main adversary in the pilot is played by Idris Elba. Although he’s in very few scenes, Elba contributes a dark menace that seems at odds with the relative lack of jeopardy in the rest of the episode. The impressive thing, though, is that when the stakes need to be raised, Scott and the overall structure are up to the task. That means that when “Agency” just needs to be about finding a lost dog or catching a philandering husband, it can be funny and light, but when it wants to look at some of the larger issues impacting urbanized 21st century Africa, it can do that as well. It’s that flexibility that gives me hope for “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” as a series.
“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” premieres on HBO on Sunday, March 29 at 8 p.m. ET.
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