Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

(UK/South Africa/Botswana/USA, 2008)

I’ve been reading these books since almost the beginning of the series, in 1998. There are now nine, with Tea Time for the Traditionally Built due out in a few months. There are not many books I look forward to more than these. Slim little volumes, understated writing, simple stories about uncomplicated (not simple) people. Precious Ramotswe is one of the all-time great literary creations, not like anyone else I’ve ever encountered. She is wise without being a pain in the ass about it, honest but able to tell a lie if she feels it’s in someone’s best interests, and most of all, she is … kind. The cases she solves don’t involve international drug rings, multiple murders, or pedophiles. They are simple cases, the kind a real detective might encounter. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some readers found her boring. That’s their loss, not mine. I treasure her, a pearl beyond price.

So naturally you have to wonder. Is it possible to make a good movie out of this material? Do people want to see stories about good people and small problems? This isn’t tracking down psychotic killers on the wrong side of town, solving murders in Cabot Cove, or even deducing a mystery by the use of “little gray cells” or elementary logic, my dear Watson. There’s nothing quite like these stories, so will a screenwriter and a director, who tend to be used to stories like ones they’ve already seen, be able to tone down their instinct to jazz it up, hype it, blow it out of proportion?

Well, we got lucky. The script is by Richard Curtis, of Blackadder, Mr. Bean, and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, all quality stuff. (Maybe a bit over the top here and there; can he tone it down for this one? Yes, he can. And the script works marvelously well.) It was the last film directed by Anthony Minghella, of Cold Mountain and The English Patient. This was clearly a labor of love. It could easily have been filmed in California, of course, with just establishing shots of hippos and elephants and meerkats, but it was filmed entirely in Botswana, which has some of the best African scenery to be found anywhere. It could have been cast entirely in America, but instead there are only two Americans, Precious herself and her secretary, Grace Makutsi (who scored an unprecedented 97% on the final exam at the Botswana Secretarial College!). Mma Makutsi is played by Anika Noni Rose, who was in Dreamgirls and is really too pretty (sorry, Mma) for the part, but she plays it as plain, stiff, and uptight. And the crucial role, the one that makes it work or not work, is played by Jill Scott, who is better known for her hip-hop songs than as an actress. She won the part over some Hollywood heavyweights (you should pardon the expression; Mma Ramotswe is what she terms “traditionally built,” it would be mean to call her fat) as Queen Latifah, Oprah, and Whoopi Goldberg (sorry, Whoop, you’re not traditional enough). And judging from what I saw, she deserved it.

Objections? Well, very small ones. The inarticulate and plodding Mr. J.L.B Matekoni is just a wee bit too assertive and smart. They added a gay hairdresser as Mma Ramotswe’s neighbor, obviously comic relief (though he is a sympathetic character), but he works fairly well. But everything else is very faithful, from Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors to the tiny white van, which in America we’d call a pick-up.

The good news is, there are seven more episodes!

I can’t leave this without mentioning the only review linked at the IMDb. It’s by Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle, and it’s one of the most fuck-headed reviews I’ve ever read. He spends the first half on what is essentially a call to arms for HBO subscribers. His position is that we didn’t sign up for stuff like this. This is HBO! We want to see nothing but psychotic killers like Tony Soprano, psychotic prisoners like Oz, or psychotic cowboys who like to say fuck a lot, like Deadwood. A series like this should be on CBS. What an asshole! I subscribe to HBO for quality, dipshit, and I don’t care if it’s blood, gore, and profanity, or sweetness and light. The world could use a bit more sweetness, and I thank HBO for bringing it to me … without the damn commercials you’d see if it were on CBS!