Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “Sherlock – A Case of Evil” (2002)

With his youthful good looks and at times his gauchness and immature arrogance, James D’Arcy presents a very believable, feisty portrait of how the young Sherlock Holmes might have been. (Holmes ‘with an L’ as he points out to a police officer). Indeed, not only do Lestrade and Watson dislike this jumped up private detective on first encountering him, but so do the audience. This is the cleverness of the script by Piers Ashworth, for we see as the story progresses the character’s growing and credible maturity. Holmes changes, the process culminating in a very telling symbolical scene where he burns all his past press cuttings, which earlier had meant so much to his vanity” (David Stuart Davies).

A young Sherlock Holmes – the idea never fails to tantalize. Perhaps a child or teenage Sherlock, furtively collecting samples of soil and ash; or Sherlock Holmes as a young man, living on Montague Street and passing time at the British Museum. Whether it is a Sherlock Holmes in short pants toddling after an older Mycroft, learning to distinguish amongst the treads of bicycle tires, or a young detective just out of university, trapped somewhere between “The ‘Gloria Scott’,” and “The Musgrave Ritual” – devotees of Sherlock Holmes want to know the Great Detective before he ever was the Great Detective. It’s almost as if we think a full understanding of Sherlock Holmes is connected to being there from his beginning – as if we will know him better if we know him from the start. 

And a young Sherlock Holmes is exactly what the 2002 made-for-television film Sherlock: A Case of Evil offers. A Sherlock Holmes who is still developing the finer points of his talents and skills; a Sherlock Holmes who is still figuring out how deep and malevolent the intricacies of his problematic relationship with Professor Moriarty are; a Sherlock Holmes who has not yet met his Dr. John Watson – and when they finally do meet, it is clear that they do not know what to make of each other. This is a Sherlock Holmes without his full set of armor in place, who is not immediately distrustful and who does not yet know that “the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money” (SIGN). This is Sherlock Holmes before the reader meets him in A Study in Scarlet, supposedly. This is the Great Detective before he was ever great.

But those viewers seeking that faithful adaptation of A Study in Scarlet, seemingly ever elusive, must look elsewhere. There is no youthful Sherlock Holmes bent low over a chemical table and studiously examining his “retorts, test-tubes, and little Bunsen lamps, with their blue flickering flames” (STUD) in this film. Instead, the audience finds a young detective who drinks copious amounts of absinthe in a dodgy establishment, flamboyantly tells stories of his (for the moment, solo) escapades to clutches of enraptured debutantes, and who finds himself waking up next to these same young women at an alarming and illogical rate. James D’Arcy as Sherlock Holmes is shades of Benedict Cumberbatch – magnificently tall, with gloriously sharp cheekbones and a deep, sonorous voice. But his arrogance seems misplaced and misdirected, as if he has not yet earned the right to act in such a fashion, and the audience is hard-pressed to imagine him ever being allowed such liberties. He is a man in desperate need of some humility, but whether the film’s conclusion finds him humbled or defeated is a matter of debate.
A Case of Evil is not the first film to tackle Sherlock Holmes’s early years, to imagine the intricacies of the Great Detective’s construction. In Sherlock Holmes on Screen, Alan Barnes highlights the many similarities between A Case of Evil and the 1985 film directed by Barry Levinson and written by Chris Columbus, Young Sherlock Holmes:

“…both purport to detail the first meeting of Holmes and Watson; both see Holmes engaged in hitherto unreported confrontation with Professor Moriarty; both see Holmes falling victim to a grim narcotic, bringing forth hallucinogenic sequences; in both, Holmes’s lady-love is shot dead by Moriarty before he and Holmes settle their quarrel in a vicious swordfight; and both would seem to assert that these experiences would leave Holmes incapable of love” (167).
Roger Morlidge stars as a Dr. John Watson who is not a quite a bumbling archetype of stupidity from the Nigel Bruce school of Watsons, but neither is he the model war hero and pillar of strength for which more recent Sherlock Holmes film and television adaptations have set a precedent. To begin with, Morlidge’s Watson does not treat the living, and is instead a mortician working closely with Scotland Yard. This Watson is clever, without question, as is demonstrated by the series of sometimes amusing and sometimes practical devices he invents over the course of the film. And that he cares for the young Sherlock Holmes is also without question. This Watson somehow manages to know Sherlock Holmes better than the Detective knows himself – even while he manages to remain largely perplexed by his new comrade. It is Watson who manages to intuit the existence of Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (played by Richard E. Grant), and reunites the somewhat estranged brothers. Grant’s performance as Mycroft provides one of the film’s strongest moments – taken largely from “The Greek Interpreter,” but highlighting that Sherlock Holmes is not just a product of his own contrivance, but also of his culture and context.

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A Case of Evil also features Vincent D’Onofrio curiously cast as a flamboyant, gangland version of Professor Moriarty, sporting a red velvet top hat and an electric blue waistcoat – easily more robber baron than the academic villain with whom most readers are familiar. His portrayal is described in equal turns by Alan Barnes as “all thuggish Bill Sikes swagger” (167) and by David Stuart Davies as “a sort of Victorian Al Capone” (186). There even seems to be prescient elements of Johnny Depp’s version of the iconic Mad Hatter in the recent adaptation of Alice in Wonderland in the odd rhythms and tones of Moriarty’s speech patterns. Whatever the label or definition, there is something about D’Onofrio’s portrayal of the canonical villain that begs to acknowledge a cleverness that simply is not present. As Moriarty asks the imprisoned Holmes to help him name his new drug, he adds that the name should be “something…heroic.” The quip is followed by a long pause in which the audience is practically audible in its sarcastic reply: “That’s a very smart joke. Look at you and your smart joke.”
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A young Sherlock Holmes should be different from the man readers know in the canon. If the Great Detective was the same at ages eight and eighteen, as he was at ages twenty-eight and thirty-eight, then there would be no mystery, and nothing to learn. But the Sherlock Holmes presented to the audience in 2002’s Sherlock: A Case of Evil is so far removed from the man that readers know that it is incredibly difficult to reconcile them. David Stuart Davies, as referenced at the beginning of the post, mentions a scene in which Holmes burns his old press clippings – symbolic of his leaving his old arrogance behind. Rather perhaps it is symbolic of starting fresh, as there is no sign of the Great Detective as readers know him to be found, and then only option is to burn it all and start anew.
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  1. Always a pleasure to meet a Sherlockian :)

    Nice review of the movie. I need to check this one out.


  2. As a lifelong Sherlockian, an Avid Mentalist & Consultant this was absolutely the worst rendition I've seen. As I sit here I can here Vincent's voice in the background. While he is a wonderful detective in Criminal Intent, His Moriarty is more like Dr. Claw. Wonderful article! Always a pleasure.
    -Joe Riggs

  3. @Joe Riggs: Your Dr. Claw analogy for Vincent D'Onofrio's Moriarty is very apt! There is definitely something cartoonish about his performance. Thank you so much for reading!

  4. For me Moriarty is most effective the less we see of him (this is Doyle's presentation). The closest parallel I know is Edward Hyde. Hence, you are absolutely right about D'Onofrio who is too reminiscent of flashy comic book villains. Great post as usual!