In the Shadow of Rathbone: James D’Arcy in Sherlock

holmes-basil-rathboneI had read far from pleasant things about Sherlock, a.k.a. Sherlock: Case of Evil, (2002) on the Web. I hoped I would see something worthwhile in it that others had missed. But no. Mostly, I saw a lot of men’s hairstyles that looked very anachronistic. I’m pretty sure Victorian England wasn’t witness to so many men with hair shoulder-length and longer, ponytails, and even a mullet.

Then again, Professor Moriarty is presented as a drug kingpin who dresses a bit like a 1970s pimp. Okay, maybe the filmmakers were up to something daring by telling a late 20th-century story of drugs and gangs and murder in a late 19th-century setting in the way that Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H is set during the Korean War but is actually commenting on the Vietnam War. The opening music of Sherlock — rife with a synthesizer and a hard beat — suggests as much.

But then why make it a Sherlock Holmes movie? Specifically, why make it a Sherlock Holmes origin story? Sherlock tries to be two very different movies, and neither one works very well.

james-darcy-as-sherlockShining in Sherlock’s Shadow

I hope James D’Arcy gets another chance to play Holmes. He has the talent and the right look for the role. Here, however, he has to play a character that is both anti-Holmes — meaning, deliberately stepping out of the shadow of the Rathbone tradition — and not really Holmes at all. Piers Ashworth’s script introduces Holmes as a young rock-star detective with a taste for alcohol, sex, and celebrity. Inexplicably, he’s also sincere, courteous, and eager to cooperate with the police and especially with the coroner, a bloke named Dr. Watson. He falls in love, too, being able to switch off his mile-a-minute logical brain to get all mushy with a woman who’s, well, nice enough, but she’s certainly no Irene Adler.

Add to these complications a boyhood trauma that stems from watching his brother Mycroft turned into drug addict by Moriarty. This is another version of the Compulsive Detective, the interpretation of Holmes whose maladjustments come, not from his hyper-rational focus, but from chemical addiction, childhood suffering, or both. This Holmes is all over the place, making D’Arcy’s acting challenge formidable, if not impossible.

In a nutshell, the problem involves trying to turn a traditionally static character into a dynamic one. As I’ve been exploring in many of these reviews, Holmes is unchanging but fascinating because he must struggle to find some balance between his super-human sense of logic and his very human sense of decency. This film avoids that struggle in favor of ferreting out reasons behind the character’s drug use and his avoidance of both women and the public spotlight.

Theakston as WatsonWatching Watson

While Holmes is too diffuse, Watson is almost cartoonishly limited. Graham Theakston’s direction is part of this, but Roger Morlidge’s Watson reacts with exasperation to meeting Holmes, exasperation to Holmes’ drinking binge, exasperation even to a shootout between the cops and criminals. It seems to be his only response. The ghost of Nigel Bruce haunts Morlidge, a pudgy actor asked to get laughs with all that exasperation. He’s also expected to provide comic relief by predicting that, one day, London street traffic will be eradicated by the Underground and cigarettes will be illegal.

Even worse, this Watson is an inventor. He apparently invented a variation on the miter saw, one for skulls; a cane-rifle to replace cane-swords; and flash photography. It all feels very contrived and convenient. More fun might have come from having these inventions come from, say, a quirky neighbor in 221-C instead of from Watson.

As it happens, Nicholas Gecks, who does excellent work at playing Lestrade, has greater chemistry with D’Arcy, and the two actors together feel more like a proper Holmes-and-Watson duo.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

As he does with Watson’s dead-wrong predictions of the future, the screenwriter leans into the shot just enough to wink at the audience by including a character named Rebecca Doyle. This is the woman with whom Holmes falls in love, and I guess one could argue that she’s as limited as many women created by Victorian male authors, including Arthur Conan Doyle. Rebecca Doyle first deceives Holmes with her womanly wiles, she next nurses him back to health, and finally she waits patiently when Moriarty takes his gun off her to taunt Holmes. Apparently, not much has improved for women characters over more than a century.

Other than that disappointment, there is little connection between this film and the works written by Holmes’ creator. Instead, Sherlock owes far more to a couple of earlier Holmes films. A clever allusion to The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) is made when Watson refers to a detox treatment devised by a colleague in Vienna, namely, Sigmund Freud. However, the dreamy flashbacks to boy-Holmes approaching something traumatic feel less like a nod to that earlier film and more like an unoriginal grab from it.

The other film that Sherlock calls to mind is Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), which is a much better origin story because its younger young Holmes feels like the Holmes we know. He already struggles with being a genius in a world of Watsons. Yes, he also has a love interest — a suspiciously conventional one — but adolescence goes a long way to explain this. And Sherlock feels as if it borrows too much from Young Sherlock Holmes in how it handles this love interest at the end.

Another reason Young Sherlock Holmes works better is its explanation of how the Holmesian trademarks such as the deerstalker, the pipe, and such came to be. Sherlock, on the other hand, strives to similarly “construct” Holmes while schizophrenically playing with those parallels between Victorian England and the dilemma of drugs and crime of a century later. In the end, it winds up not doing either one very well.

clock-but-no-clockworks
At the conclusion of Sherlock, Holmes is too busy sword-fighting with Moriarty to observe that Big Ben mysteriously operates with no mechanical clockworks!

Along with the performances of D’Arcy and Gecks, the sets and costumes in Sherlock are very impressive. Still, I recommend this film solely to people who want to see what can go wrong with a Sherlock Holmes film that tries to be too much. Even with that in mind, I suggest stopping the DVD when you see the words:

The Casebook of
Dr. Watson
 Sherlock Holmes.

That joke is pretty good. The humor that follows is . . . well . . . not.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

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