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In his book Diamond , Canadian journalist Matthew Hart writes that the modern history of the coveted gem began in 1869, when a native boy in South Africa found a large crystal on a farm and set in motion the global diamond cartel that is equal parts glamour, deceit, monopoly and war.

And it is the seedier aspects of the diamond trade that are the focus of a new, four-hour miniseries on CBC Television called Diamonds , based on Ottawa-born Hart's critically acclaimed 2002 book.

Boasting an international cast that includes Britain's James Purefoy and Sir Derek Jacobi, as well as Australian Oscar nominee Judy Davis, Diamonds takes viewers on a journey through South Africa, Canada's Arctic and London's posh core as it tracks the horribly fascinating world that feeds off these dazzling bits of carbon.

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Reached on the phone from her home in Sydney, Davis admits she knew little about the diamond trade until she read David Vainola's screenplay for the TV show.

"I hadn't seen any of the Hollywood films," she says, referring to releases such as Blood Diamond . "But the script was very strong, and it was all kind of a horrific revelation. It did change my view of diamonds. Not that I was ever really a diamond sort, but now - to me - diamonds are not entirely innocent." She says she now asks friends "to look closely at the covenants on any diamond they buy, and make sure they're buying the ethical ones, which guarantee a certain level of working practice [in the mines]"

Oscar-nominated for her roles in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives and David Lean's A Passage to India , Davis plays an American senator, Joan Cameron, whose geologist daughter is murdered at a Congolese mine.

Co-star Purefoy, who played the salacious Mark Antony in the series Rome and has appeared in films such as Resident Evil and A Knight's Tale , plays the ruthless Lucas Denmont, scion of the powerful diamond producer Denmont Corp. Purefoy admits he, too, was naive about the diamond racket, which, like the drug or sex trades, has tentacles reaching everywhere.

"The story is told from the perspective of many characters who, on the surface, have somewhat tenuous links to each other," he says. "But when their stories are seen as a whole, you realize the trafficking of diamonds is not so different from the trafficking of anything else. It's about greed, avarice and the accumulation of wealth. The story is also about how all of our actions affect others in ways you sometimes would never imagine.

"To prepare for the role, I talked to a lot of people in Johannesburg who had worked in the mines," the actor adds, "and one of the things that struck me is that behind those gorgeous stones sparkling on people's necks is a human toll that I had not been aware of before."

Directed by Andy Wilson, Diamonds weaves together the complex tales of the senator (Davis), the diamond baron (Purefoy), his estranged father (Jacobi), his fiancé (Louise Rose), an orphan/child soldier (Mbongeni Nhlapo) and two ambitious geologists (played by Newfoundland's Joanne Kelly and Nova Scotia native Stephen McHattie).

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In the movie, a British/Canadian/South African co-production, Davis's character eventually travels to the Congo to try to find out more about her daughter's death. And Davis says what she liked most about playing a U.S. politician was her character's "eventual loss of innocence."

"This is a person who spent her whole life in politics, but it was only once she got outside the United States that she finally sees how American-centric she was," says the 53-year-old. "My view of her is that, despite all the years she's been in domestic politics, she's actually quite naive about some of the ways in which her country operates."

As the cunning Lucas, Purefoy says there is little - "nothing really" - nice that he can find to say about the guy. "He's a bad person, a really nasty guy who is prepared to put his own greed ahead of the lives of others. As such, he's pretty monstrous," the actor says with a chuckle. "However charming he may seem, he has the smile of a crocodile."

To film the Arctic exploration, Purefoy and the crew travelled to Churchill, Man. - "a chilly place, certainly the chilliest place I've ever been," says the 44-year-old. "One day I was shooting in 40-degree Celsius near Joburg, and the next day - literally - I was on a plane and dropped into minus-40 temperatures wrapped in as many layers as I could possibly get. Trying to pack for that, I might add, was a challenge."

The first two-hour instalment of Diamonds airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on CBC-TV. The second part runs April 12.

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