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.

(Photo Credit:
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.”
(Photo Credit:
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.
“Better Holmes & Gardens” now has its own Facebook page.  Join by “Liking” the page here, and receive all the latest updates, news, and Sherlockian tidbits.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Currently on Twitter...

As part of an ongoing project on my Twitter feed, I'm delivering stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon in tiny installments of 140 characters or less. I recently finished up "The Reigate Puzzle" (or "The Reigate Squires," as you may be accustomed to calling it). The story opens with Dr. Watson arriving at Sherlock Holmes's side " a time when Europe was ringing with his name and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams I found him a prey to the blackest depression." It also contains a rather memorable scene involving a dish of oranges, a carafe of water, and Watson's understanding disposition.

The current story is "The Resident Patient," a story which begins with a quiet walk through London and ends with yet another case in which the Great Detective misses out on bringing his quarry to justice because of a shipwreck.

Check out my Twitter feed for a daily installment, although I am usually inspired to post more than once a day. And don't forget you can read through the original canon online.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

“Such as children’s toys are kept in” (MUSG): Assorted Sherlock Holmes Trappings and its Role

“And now, Doctor, we’ve done our work, so it’s time we had some play. A sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then off to violin-land, where all is sweetness and delicacy and harmony, and there are no red-headed clients to vex us with their conundrums.” (“The Red-Headed League”)

There’s little else in this world that can motivate my husband and I to clean like an unexpected visitor. It’s not that we’re untidy people per se – it’s just that we have no children, no nearby relatives, and nobody that we feel the need to impress except ourselves. All right, and maybe we’re lazy. But we can summon energy to organize and dust when properly motivated, and recently, when our oldest friends called to let us know they were in the area and stopping by for a visit – my husband’s two-year-old goddaughter in tow – well, consider us properly motivated. And this is how I found myself knee-deep in my Sherlock Holmes collection – dusting, reorganizing, tucking things away, and just generally trying to make it all look as uninteresting as possible from a toddler’s perspective.
This actually proved a more difficult task than I had imagined. There are books, of course. So very many books. Books on shelves and books in boxes; books neatly catalogued and organized, and books in towering stacks leaning up against walls. Books that I’ve read, books that I mean to read, and books that I plan to read again – if I should ever wake up to find there is another day in the week or an additional five hours in the day. There are also movies – on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray. There might even be a few on laser disc tucked away somewhere, which I no longer have a way of viewing. There are comic books, and video games, and even a rather lovely magnifying glass for which I can neither figure out a practical daily use nor a practical way of displaying it. There’s a pewter figurine of Sherlock Holmes in an inverness cape and deerstalker hat, which the owner is supposed to paint by hand, but I lack the necessary skillset. There is even a glass bottle of green M&M candies that my husband had personalized with the Sherlock Holmes silhouette for my birthday. I tried to place the more tantalizingly colorful, breakable, and edible items up on high shelves.
But I also found several items that did not fall in any of those categories, strictly speaking. There is the Sherlock Holmes action figure, which I acquired from the online purveyor of a variety of oddities, Archie McPhee, but can also be purchased elsewhere. I use the term “action figure” relatively loosely here. Though the figure is also clad in a plastic inverness cape and deerstalker hat (the hat is removable, the cape is not), he neither moves nor is he particularly pose-able. There are, however, a removable pipe and magnifying glass that come included with the package, which I have kept obsessively sealed. Similarly, there is the set of Sherlock Holmes paper dolls, which remain likewise untouched on their shelf. The set features 60 interchangeable heads of actors who have portrayed Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson over the years (including the Will Ferrell/Sacha Baron Cohen venture that never quite came to fruition), as well as 10 different costumes and 4 other companions in addition to Dr. Watson (Professor Moriarty, Inspector Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson and Irene Adler). I even own two copies of the “221B Baker Street: The Master Detective Game.” One copy is still wrapped tightly in its original plastic packaging; the other copy I was convinced to open, and I have actually played, when I can find a willing companion.
But somewhere, between the matchbooks adorned with the famous Sherlockian silhouette and the Sherlock Holmes bookplates that I will never paste into books and the vintage metal bookmark in the shape of the Great Detective that’s really a little too tarnished to be considered a collectible anymore – I suddenly found myself wondering: “Why do I own this stuff, precisely?”
That’s not to say that I’m not glad that I do – own these things, that is. The first time I ever walked into the dealers’ room at my very first Sherlockian event, I think I must have had some sort of fit. I don’t remember much personally but to hear it told I just started pitching money at people in exchange for whatever I could find. My collection is not unique. It is not even particularly large in the grand scheme of Sherlockian collecting. And collections are a universal theme of most hobbies – see the “Doctor Who” fan with his own TARDIS in his living room, the “Trekkie” who built his own tricorder, or the “Star Wars” aficionado with her own wearable Stormtrooper armor. Many people seem to come equipped with that internal “collector’s alarm” that responds to one particular type of item, and when it goes off, causes the bearer lose all perspective – financial or otherwise.
Collecting makes the whole endeavor seem more tangible – gives the whole exercise substance. It’s certainly not that we’re looking for validation – no one is looking for or even requires permission – and it’s not as if owning a plastic replica of a Calabash pipe and a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle that reveals the plot to “The Speckled Band” when assembled will provide that validation anyway. But there are only 56 short stories and 4 novels in the original Sherlock Holmes canon, as penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Collecting helps to expand the universe – extend it beyond its original boundaries. Owning these items is a reminder that there are no limitations – not really. Every book, movie, soundtrack album, and replica deerstalker only serves to contribute to the vastness of the enterprise.
The challenge, of course, will always be finding the space and the time. But as Sherlock Holmes once said, "Now, Watson…we have half an hour to ourselves. Let us make good use of it.” (The Sign of Four)
“Better Holmes & Gardens” now has its own Facebook page.  Join by “Liking” the page here, and receive all the latest updates, news, and Sherlockian tidbits.