Wednesday, 4 January 2012

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

When announcing in the preface to His Last Bow, the final collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, that Holmes’ adventures “must cease and he must go the way of all flesh, material or imaginary”, Arthur Conan Doyle most likely found it improbable that the great detective would be as popular as ever over a hundred years later. Yet, I have seen the evidence eliminating the impossible theory that Holmes has such ceased in the form of two new adaptations – the first episode of the new series of the BBC’s Sherlock and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Not only that, but both are follow-ups to successful previous screen adventures, proving the truth that Holmes remains a popular hero in the twenty-first century. OK, so that link was a bit contrived, and Conan Doyle definitely couldn’t have predicted the TV and film adaptations, being a Victorian gentleman and all that, but I do love that quote.

In fact, I love Conan Doyle’s works in general. I read them all not too long ago after buying a box set (is it still called that when they’re books?) for amazingly good value (I highly recommend a company called The Book People, my mum's a member of their catalogue book discount club thing) and thoroughly enjoyed the escapism offered by the timeless adventures of Holmes and Watson. The joys of Conan Doyle’s stories lie not only in the cleverly plotted mysteries but also in the fantastical eccentricity of Holmes and his interaction with the down to earth Watson and the comparatively incompetent police.

As wonderful as they are, a direct adaptation of Coney D’s stories would struggle to work on a modern screen. They lack the length, generally being very short stories, or visual interest, often with half of the thing being a conversation in the main chamber (what’s Victorian for living room?) of 221B Baker Street. Also, some of the attitudes in the Holmes stories may seem a tad dated today (racist caricatures in The Sign of the Four and The Three Gables come to mind, although The Yellow Face was remarkably progressive for its time, ending with a white man accepting a black child into his household, and I can’t be arsed getting into the whole Irene Adler argument again). While Jeremy Brett’s 1980s ITV stint as Holmes is undoubtedly the best in terms of accurately following the original stories, even these had to flesh out and dick around a bit to make them work (generally very well, from what I've seen) for a TV audience. Thus it is necessary for adaptations to take a liberty or twenty and it’s interesting to compare the different approaches to the Holmes canon.

A Game of Shadows is very much Sherlock Holmes as an action movie. Whereas its 2009 predecessor, imaginatively titled Sherlock Holmes, used an entirely original story, Ritchie’s film takes Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem and moulds it into an action packed chase across nineteenth century Europe, with armchair deductions replaced by really massive cannons and an energetic gunfight on a railway carriage. While this of course angers Doyle purists who’d rather jump down the Reichenbach Fall than see this explosive Hollywood-isation of their eccentric British hero, the film certainly makes for an enjoyable, visually spectacular ride and is directed with an impressive cinematic style. Despite the Matrix-esque bullet time getting slightly over the top during one notably forest-based chase, as an action film with a cinematic budget, I can’t say A Game of Shadows isn’t fun. But does it sacrifice too much of the intellect of Doyle’s stories? Honestly, yes, I think it does. While the first film’s plot didn’t stray too far in that, alongside the action set pieces, it had a complex and relatively clever (for a blockbuster, anyway) mystery plot befitting the character, the second, despite the influences of The Final Problem, is perhaps too much action, too little conversation (Ritchie should stop listening to Elvis) to be a great Sherlock Holmes story.

The BBC’s Sherlock, meanwhile, created by Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, takes the original stories and places them in twenty-first century London. This second series promises modern retellings of three of Holmes and Watson’s most famous cases and kicked off with A Scandal in Belgravia, which is A Scandal in Bohemia adjusted for the fact that Bohemia doesn’t exist any more. After a satisfying resolution to last series’ cliffhanger, the first half hour of the episode was pretty much an exact retelling of the original story, with many elements retained – Holmes’ priest disguise, Watson’s call of fire – and many nice modern details added in – the offending pictures being on a camera phone (and sexual in nature, of course), helicopters, a lesbian. The rest of the episode was Moffat’s own creation and, while some elements did stretch credibility at points (the plane full of dead people, for example – then again, the original stories were far from realism), the plot came together nicely, with constant twists and turns that Sir Arthur would have been proud of. It was nice to be reminded that Moffat can write a good, well-structured story after the disappointing mess that was the recent Doctor Who Christmas special*. The series is also notable in showing Guy Ritchie that a Holmes screen story doesn't need to be overflowing with action set pieces to look nice, as it's directed in an exciting manner that looks beautiful (Benedict Cumberbatch’s face helps), keeps the attention through clever editing (the montage of cases at the start of Scandal was marvellous) and fits with Sherlock’s fast thinking (the use of on-screen text as he analyses people is a genius move). This visual style works on a TV budget and, in contrast to the movie’s, not only allows for, but also complements, Conan Doyle-esque complex and clever plotting.

What the creators of both adaptations fortunately seem to understand is that the most important element of Conan Doyle’s stories is in fact not the mysteries, but Holmes and Watson themselves. In his narratives, Watson often spends a lot of pages on describing living with Holmes – Holmes annoys Watson by analysing the doctor’s pocket watch, Holmes annoys Watson by taking cocaine, Holmes annoys Watson by carrying out smelly scientific experiments, Holmes and Watson are really quite good friends and share some nice pork (not a euphemism - there never was, and never should be, any hint of a sexual relationship between Holmes and Watson, though Sherlock's repeated joke of people thinking that there is is admittedly apt and funny), etc. It is therefore important to choose the right actors to convey the central relationship and not have a dry focus on plot alone.

A Game of Shadows stars Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and dashing heartthrob Jude Law as Watson. The two are undoubtedly very talented and certainly have the looks for mainstream cinema (though Downey Jr. is bordering too much on being handsome in a conventional manner for my liking, and that's not right at all!). The bickering between them is often amusing, with Watson’s anger at thinking that Holmes has killed first his dog and later his wife providing comic highlights, though the relationship is more buddy movie than Victorian literature. Holmes is presented as more of a bohemian swashbuckler than a cold intellectual, which fits with the tone of the film but once again strays dangerously far from the original. Is this a problem? I’m no obsessive purist and believe that Ritchie should be able to do what he wants with the characters; indeed, in some respects, it works in combining the heroes of a typical action-packed buddy movie with a good degree of the intellectual pomposity of Holmes to create a fun and indeed unique relationship, though I’d personally prefer to see more depth to the characters.

Sherlock stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as John (notice the use of first names – how modern). Despite (or partially because of?) not having the same A-list status (yet Freeman’s nearly there, as the ridiculously early marketing campaign for The Hobbit keeps reminding us), these two are a perfect fit. Handsome yet eccentric, Benny C conveys the devotion to reason, apathy and arrogance of Holmes like he was born to play the part, while his mind games with Irene Adler, like those with the taxi driver in 2010’s A Study in Pink, hint at a greater depth to the character, as he seems to darkly enjoy the challenge of confronting a dangerous intellectual equal. Plus, he looks darn fine in that coat. Freeman, meanwhile, is equally excellent; as ever playing the everyman role he became known for with The Office to perfection, but with an utterly convincing undercurrent of darkness absent from Law’s version; whereas the film’s ‘Watson attacks Holmes’ scene was played for laughs (not badly), Freeman’s John attacks Sherlock in a way that is simultaneously funny and chilling – “I was a soldier, I killed people.” “You were a doctor!” “I had bad days” – and sums up the unusual relationship between the two brilliantly.

In terms of the presentation of the lead characters, Sherlock wins.

I would, however, like to praise the supporting cast of A Game of Shadows, one of the film’s best features. Stephen Fry is a perfect fit for Mycroft’s dry humour and powerful erudite presence, while Mad Men’s Jared Harris makes for an excellently sinister Moriarty. The fantastic Noomi Rapace was poorly used as a somewhat clichéd gypsy-come-Victorian Bond girl. Back to the BBC, and though Gatiss’ Mycroft works well with Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, I’m yet to be convinced by Andrew Scott’s more youthful version of the criminal mastermind Calling him "Jim" instead of "James", never mind "Professor J. Moriarty" is also a bit too far with the informalities. Jim is not an evil name. Lara Pulver was very good, giving a nuanced performance as a twenty-first century (i.e. sexy, inevitably) Irene Adler.

Though I enjoyed both of these adaptations, I feel that the BBC’s is by far the superior Holmes, combining a fast pace and superb visual style with non-stop clever plotting and perfectly delivered humour. The way it retains a good deal of the atmosphere and style of Conan Doyle’s stories while being as contemporary as television can be, with the focus on the London criminal underworld and an unusual friendship between two complex characters, is remarkable. As Moffat pointed out, "Conan Doyle's stories were never about frock coats and gas light; they're about brilliant detection, dreadful villains and blood-curdling crimes – and frankly, to hell with the crinoline.” A Scandal in Belgravia followed this format expertly, set the standard for 2012 in television and probably won’t be beaten. Until next week’s episode that is** –

"Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

*As I never got around to doing a full review: liked Claire Skinner, liked Bill Bailey, liked the Doctor being funny, the plot was horribly all over the place, ARGH that emotion-based plot resolution again.
**Mad Men season five also stands a chance.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review of 'A Scandal in Belgravia'.

    For a different look at this episode, check out my review .