In the Shadow of Rathbone: Richard Roxburgh in The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002)

holmes-basil-rathboneEvery decade or so, film makers like to take the Hound for another walk around the moor. This 2002 television movie offers a very moody adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. As with almost any filmed version of the canonical works, some changes are made. Some are clever. Some come off as mistakes.

This walk” has some clever additions — but also at least one very disappointing change to the Sherlock Holmes we’ve come to admire.

richard-roxburghShining in Sherlock’s Shadow

Richard Roxburgh was a curious choice to play the great detective in terms of physicality. The casting certainly steps out of the shadow of Basil Rathbone, since the light-haired Roxburgh isn’t lanky or tall. Somewhere, I read a viewer’s comment lamenting that Richard E. Grant — who plays another prominent character in the film — didn’t play Holmes. There’s something to that, not just in terms of how we’ve been trained to expect Holmes to look, but also in terms of how we expect him to behave. Grant might’ve brought a twitchier, off-beat quality to the performance.

In contrast, Roxburgh’s Holmes is subdued, almost bland. This Holmes doesn’t have any fun at all even once the game’s afoot! No sudden rushes of insight. No dazzlingly accelerated clue-reading.  Yes, a touch of arrogance — but only a touch. This seems to be a Holmes deliberately brought down a few pegs intellectually. In fact, screenwriter Allan Cubitt imported the discussion of Holmes’ strengths and weaknesses from A Study in Scarlet, presumably to make Holmes less superhero and more man.

That said, Roxburgh gives the character a consistency and believability that works well for this diluted solution of Sherlock.

ian-hartWatching Watson

Ian Hart similarly brings a believability — and lack of distinctiveness — to Watson. Again, he plays the part as written: a capable and curious bloke. Not dim. Not bumbling. Not at all the comic relief guy. At times, he’s exasperated by Holmes, but that passes quickly. There’s a surge of outrage toward the end, but I never got a strong sense of Watson in terms of being a doctor or Holmes’ sidekick in crime-fighting. He’s handy with a pistol, but there’s little about his military past — or his having any past at all.

We get a quick insight into Watson’s friendship with Holmes. Their relationship seems shaky, but the ramifications of that are never explored. Holmes can still count on Watson to save him at the last minute. I’m just not sure why Watson bothers to do so.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

This might seem as if I have a pretty negative view of the film, and that’s not so. It is weak in terms of the characterization of our lead duo. However, it has strengths in creating a Gothic mood, in adding depth to the criminal, and in playing with the rational-versus-supernatural theme, all of which are very nice takes on Doyle’s famous novel.

Perhaps, the lack of fun or humor in either Holmes or Watson was intended to maintain the film’s somber, dread-laden atmosphere, and it helps to remember that Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is as much a work of Gothic horror as it is of criminal mystery. The visuals of the film especially stand out as part of this with credit going to director David Attwood and cinematographer James Welland. Some shots are quite beautiful in a creepy way. As such, the film jives nicely with Doyle’s story.

There’s a change, though, to the fate of Beryl Stapleton, a stock damsel-in-distress well played by Neve McIntosh. This adds to the insidiousness of the criminal and sparks a dramatic crescendo. Furthermore, a smart way to reinforce Doyle’s contrast between superstition and skepticism is the séance scene that’s not in the novel. These changes enhance the story.

seane-scene

Nonetheless, one deviation from Doyle that certainly hurts the film is its depiction of Holmes’ drug habit. In keeping with what I’ve come to call the Compulsive Detective tradition, this Holmes is an addict, not the recreational user of the original stories. (Of course, those stories did portray Holmes’ use of dope to alleviate his boredom between cases as very dangerous indeed.) Here, Holmes shoots up even when he’s on a case, and the only purpose I can glean for it is to make viewers wonder if he’s clear-headed enough to protect the client and solve the case.

My best explanation of why this doesn’t work is this: Sherlock Holmes doesn’t need Kryptonite. He’s not Superman; he’s Batman! We’re fascinated by him because, while he is a superhero, he’s also a human being. We know he’ll triumph in the end — we expect that — but he has sufficient human foibles, and we know his triumph will come with struggle enough to make the effort interesting. Especially in a case such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, his powers will be so tasked that we don’t need to see the hand of the screenwriter making things even more difficult for him.

Other than that — and, well, the goofy-looking, computer-generated hound — this film is perfect for rainy-night watching.

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

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