Gallivanting ’round the Web, I read several unsavory reactions to the series of four TV films featuring Matt Frewer as Sherlock Holmes. They include The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Sign of Four, The Royal Scandal, and The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire, all made for the Hallmark Channel between 2000 and 2002.
As it turns out, I happened upon what might be the least objectionable one, The Royal Scandal, which stitches together Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” Sure enough, despite some askew acting and casting, the film offers a solid Holmesian mystery and enhances the great detective’s personal history. The Royal Scandal might be a good way to introduce one’s self to the series. Of course, it’s possible one might want to end the series right there, too.
Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow
Matt Frewer is a competent and, at times, compelling Holmes here. That is, he’s good when Holmes is serious, such as in a final showdown with his brother, Mycroft. When he’s trying to play the jovial side of the great detective, though, Frewer can come off as Bertie Wooster-style goofy, and his accent begins to feel influenced by the Dick Van Dyke school of British accents (though mockingly upper crust instead of cartoonishly Cockney). I’m tempted to give a sidelong sneer to the director, Rodney Gibbons, since Frewer shows he does have a better performance in him. He just needed to be told to reel it in at times.
Paradoxically, Frewer does and doesn’t have the right look for Holmes. His lean, angular face and tall, lanky form seem in keeping with the Sidney Paget illustrations. At least for me, though, it’s tough not to see Max Headroom. Darker hair, I bet, could have made a difference — or would that have just make him look like Max Headroom with darker hair?
The better fit is Kenneth Welsh as Watson. Though at first Watson is presented as Holmes’s personal assistant — more an underling than a friend — he’s later given moments to shine. In fact, he takes on an almost, well, Holmesian aura when pointing out clues left on a corpse that refute a coroner’s explanation of how a murder occurred. On either side of this lackey/leader scale, there is no shadow of the bumbling, Nigel Bruce Watson here. That’s nice to watch. And Watson is given a fair amount to do, too, which is also nice.
Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle
Though Irene Adler appears in just one short story in Doyle’s canon, the movies love to pretend that she frequented Baker Street frequently, perhaps to visit her Auntie Mrs. Hudson or something. As related by Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Adler’s biography is this: “Born in New Jersey in the year 1858. Contralto—hum! La Scala, hum! Prima donna Imperial Opera of Warsaw—yes! Retired from operatic stage—ha! Living in London—quite so!” Well, this time, Adler is Polish, but everything else seems about right. In fact, Liliana Komorowska is very well cast in the role.
But then a short parade of canonical favorites begins marching by, and casting gets a bit wonky. Billy Wiggins shows up, but he’s older than I had imagined him. (Actor Daniel Brochu would have been around 21 during filming.) Inspector Lestrade makes a fairly brief appearance, looking younger than I had imagined him. (Julian Casey would have been around 33, but he looks almost like a teenager. A moustache might’ve helped.) The casting of Mycroft clearly does deviate from the physical description that Doyle gives in, interestingly enough, “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” Readers are given this sketch of Mycroft: “Heavily built and massive, there was a suggestion of uncouth physical inertia in the figure. . . .” The healthy- and active-looking R.H. Thomson does fine with the role — though I have stern reservations about his anachronistic haircut — but an actor that better mirrored the canon would have added some much needed distinctiveness. Perhaps even some much needed quirkiness!
That quirkiness, I think, is really what’s missing here. The mystery is intricate and an impressive interweaving of the two individual cases. I had to watch the movie twice to follow it all, and that’s a compliment to screenwriter Joe Wiesenfeld. However, it’s very much an adventure of covert political espionage. Maybe I’m wrong to do so, but dash it all, give me a good, old-fashioned whistle-trained snake or a bloke on monkey-hormone therapy!
Nonetheless, the crime balances pretty well with character in The Royal Scandal. We get to see Holmes moved emotionally by “the woman” as well as by a brother whose sense of loyalty puts family well below country. In the final scene, we also see that this case has left the usually unflappable detective rather flapped indeed. And that reminds us that, underneath it all, Holmes is human.