Contains some spoilers
With the singular exception of Doctor Who I tend not to write more than one post on any given television show per season, unless something occurs that significantly changes my initial take on it, so I hadn’t intended to contribute any more thoughts about the latest series of Sherlock following my review of the New Year’s Day episode. But since it appears that this might be the very last we see of the Steven Moffat/Mark Gatiss incarnation of the consulting detective, an exception seemed called for in order for us to take one final look at the whole of season 4.
As regular readers might recall, I rather enjoyed “The Six Thatchers” which was the first of this run of three episodes, although some were put off by the Bond/Bourne overtures and pined for the time when the show ‘just solved mysteries’ (which was never the point of Sherlock.) I did however grumble about the final 20 minutes which seemed clunky and mis-paced after what had gone before. Read the rest of this entry »
I was really hoping to avoid this terrible cliché, but there’s no getting around it: Victor Frankenstein is a mishmash of many disparate pieces, some of them actually rather good, but where the whole ends up being distinctly less the sum of its parts and something of a lumpen, stumbling disappointment.
Writer Max Landis’ main creative idea behind Victor Frankenstein is to reimagine Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 tale from the point of view of the hunchback Igor, who in this version is neither a true hunchback nor a mere assistant to Frankenstein’s work. Here he is in many ways the brains behind the operation, and is his name is not actually Igor. That character never actually appeared in the original novel, being instead a compilation of different roles from the classic Universal horror series of the 1930s and 1940s which have become fused in the popular imagination into one stock caricature over the years. It’s that shadow the film is trying to kick against, but in large part it never really succeeds in escaping. By the end, the idea is almost entirely dropped and forgotten for something far more disappointingly conventional. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve always been surprised by the runaway popular success of BBC One’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson.
It really does take the mantra of ‘smart is the new sexy’ to a whole new level and goes places that are so supremely ambitious that they become indistinguishable from the pretentious and self-indulgent a lot of the time. That makes it very much my sort of show, but I’m surprised it appeals to the mass audience anywhere near as widely as it apparently does if viewing figures are to be believed. The latest 90-minute special entitled “The Abominable Bride” was certainly one of the biggest and most hyped attractions of the BBC’s 2015 Christmas and New Year schedules and its importance was reflected by a near-simultaneous broadcast in the US on the same day.
Co-written by the show’s co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, you can see the DNA contributed by both parents: the dizzyingly complex plotting we’re familiar with from Moffat that twists past and modern strands together with frightening ambition, and the more viscerally pleasing Gothic horror sensibilities of Gatiss who also appears on screen as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – the smarter of the Holmes boys. Read the rest of this entry »
The BBC has chosen July to air two new drama shows that feel like they’re reasonably direct offspring from last year’s The Shadow Line, even though they themselves are quite different from one another. Normally too such dark shows would feel out of place in the middle of summer, but nature had taken care of that and left us with a distinctly cold, dark and wet noir-ish feel to the weather that makes these two shows feel perfectly scheduled after all.
Blackout – the story of an alcoholic, corrupt councillor – is set in some unidentified big city, probably but not necessarily northern, where it rains even more than it does in a typical David Fincher movie, making it an ideal reflection of the 2012 British summer. Of the two shows on offer, Blackout is the one to inherit The Shadow Line’s style genes, with every frame beautifully designed and shot and the whole feel like a shining modern film noir complete with blonde femme fatale and a detectives’ office straight out of a 1940s LA-set crime flick.
The characters are similarly larger than life and overblown, sometimes too much so despite a top notch cast led by Christopher Eccleston and including Dervla Kirwan, Ewen Bremmer, a cameo from David Hayman and a strange role for man of the moment Andrew Scott (recently Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock.) As the noir genre requires, the characters are all deeply flawed but they also aren’t particularly subtle – and neither is the plot. It also doesn’t go in much for realism along the way, with Eccleston’s character apparently able to recover from a shooting, decide to run for major, get on the ballot, run a campaign, win and set up an administration in less time than it takes another character to organise a funeral and bury their father.
Realism is very much the watch word for Line of Duty, however. Written by Jed Mercurio (who created the scathing Cardiac Arrest back when he himself worked in the NHS) the main driving force behind this drama is to show the disastrous bureaucratic shackles that the police have to hack through to do their job. To follow one set of rules invariably means running foul of another set; to do what a superior officer tells you to do one day will earn you a rebuke the next. Finding a way to play the system with optimal effect gives rise to instant suspicion and an investigation. The last thing anyone has the time, inclination or freedom to do in such circumstances is worry about fighting crime.
The whole thing is shot in a very ordinary, realistic fashion (although there are a few nice directorial flourishes here and there) and the performances are very reigned in, portrayed by small grimaces and ticks in extreme close-ups. Lennie James is superb as Gates, the senior officer under investigation; and Martin Compston equally amazing and every bit a match for James as Arnott, the young anti-corruption officer hunting Gates down. Both characters seem quite decent and honourable men in their own ways: Gates cares for his family and about doing his job well and catching the crooks; and Arnott is principled and unbending in standing by the truth only to find himself hated for it. But each man is trapped by his past missteps, and also now by the mutually destructive vendetta that breaks out between them as a misunderstanding and the action of others.
Of the two shows, it’s probably apparent from the preceding paragraphs that I much prefer Line of Duty. When it sets aside its unsubtle agenda forever referring to filling out risk assessment paperwork during a high speed car pursuit and by health and safety and adherence to targets, it’s also the show that delivers The Shadow Line’s inheritance of being a gripping and highly unpredictable conspiracy thriller about real, believable characters that you genuinely get involved in. With the latest turn of the storyline there’s a risk that the final two episodes will go over the top, but I have high hopes that it will be able to steer on the right side of histrionics to the end.
The more style-over-substance Blackout doesn’t match up to this, but it’s nonetheless a more than worthwhile watch that is very entertaining and absorbing in its own way. It’s rather a shame it comes along at the same time as Line of Duty and so soon after The Shadow Line making comparisons inevitable, because Blackout comes off second best in that company while actually being a very welcome piece of accomplished original drama in its own right.
Having previously reviewed the first of the three stories of this second series of Sherlock I think I said all I wanted to about the series as a whole, which allows me to aim to keep this follow-up to a single manageable blog post for the remaining two stories. Here goes …
One of the real strengths of this version of the Sherlock Holmes character is the way that it’s the creation and love-child of two very different writers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who are both excellent and currently at the top of their respective games but who also possess completely contrasting narrative styles. Sometimes, such a combination could stunt one or other (or even both) of the talents involved, but just sometimes the diversities feed on each other and not only survive but thrive, and build far more quality and depth to the end result than even the sum of their parts could lead us to expect. Such is the case with Moffat and Gatiss’s Sherlock.
Following on from Moffat’s extraordinarily intelligent and detailed intellectual puzzle box opener A Scandal in Belgravia comes Gatiss’ take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous (and arguably best) original Holmes story, here titularly tweaked into The Hounds of Baskerville. While it was possible to watch and re-watch Moffat’s preceding episode and still not fully understand it weeks later, there was no such problem here: Hounds was a triumph of (Hammer House of Horror) style over substance. The mystery, such as it was, wasn’t very complex: I’d pretty much worked out the solution before the midway point, although the exact ‘Who?’ remained split between two suspects until much nearer the end. But that didn’t matter – its not like Conan Doyle’s story was ever particularly difficult to puzzle out, either. In any case Gatiss wasn’t trying to out-smart us, he was trying to out-creep us – and he did, through one of the most effective and evocative Hounds committed to screen. Differing hugely from the original novel, it nonetheless had enough grace notes to the source text to make even aficionados feel warm and loved by the homage.
The extreme terror scenario did push some of the actors close to the breaking point of credibility: even Benedict Cumberbatch teetered on the edge of believability in the scenes where Holmes takes fright (although it was his playing of the scene that was also the key to realising precisely what was going on.) Poor Russell Tovey’s guest role started at “suppressed hysteria” and then had no where to go except into total histrionic breakdown, a rather thankless part; not to mention the fact that Tovey’s most famous recent role in Being Human meant that in the back of your mind was the red herring that his character (the sublimely named Henry Knight) could himself transmogrify into the hound at any point. I’m sure that this little mind game was entirely intentional from Gatiss, who is such a devotee of the classic Hammer and Universal horror films as well as Jacques Tourneur’s films including Cat People. Interestingly, the most effective “acting blind scared” came from the series star who invariably gets less attention and praise than he merits – but more of Martin Freeman in a minute.
Then we came to the season finale, The Reichenbach Fall, based on Conan Doyle’s short story “The Final Problem” which was dominated by the presence of Moriarty, and by the author killing off his most famous literary creation. We knew what to expect from this 90 minutes going in, in other words.
I admit to having been anxious about this instalment going in, as it had been entrusted to the third (and, to put it rather cruelly, the most junior) member of the writing team behind Sherlock. Steve Thompson had contributed the middle story of season 1, The Blind Banker, and it had been by far the least of the first year’s stories – although interestingly, I found it more enjoyable second time around when I saw it on DVD again late in 2011. Perhaps its ‘average’ rating is more to do with the company it was keeping, rather like Watson inevitably looks rather dim in the company of the two Holmes boys. But another mark against Thompson was his contribution to the most recent series of Doctor Who, “The Curse of the Black Spot” – by far the weakest episode of that 2011 series as far as I was concerned. So that was two strikes against Thompson: was The Reichenbach Fall to be the third? It would be appalling to foul up this story among all others, and the season finale to boot.
Well, I stand corrected. Not only did Thompson’s script do justice to the occasion, it was without question a match for the two stories that had preceded it. In fact in many ways it was the best of the three and perfectly pitched, fulfilment of how the combination of Gatiss and Moffat’s styles into one story by Thompson can produce new heights of genius: atmospheric, thrilling and tense like Hounds but packed full with Sherlock being as clever as only Holmes can be and all without losing the audience in the process. Sherlock got unrestricted license to show off in this episode thanks to the presence of Moriarty: no matter how clever Holmes was being, you always felt and knew that Moriarty was at least two steps in front and being even more insanely clever. Actor Andrew Scott must have had a blast with this part, which allowed him to veer from threatening and sinister to light-hearted and playful, from cunning and focused to cackling and even faux-terrified. It was a style of villain much in the vein of Heath Ledger’s Joker or John Simm’s Master, but at the same time completely individual and unique.
Scott’s towering, scene-grabbing portrayal of Moriarty has been controversial and divisive, but I loved every minute of it – it shone in a series stuffed full of great performances, from Cumberbatch himself as Holmes of course, to Lara Pulver’s memorably classy and sexy Irene Adler to Gatiss’s own cameos as a svelte brother Mycroft (particularly well used in the season finale.) In such stellar company it would be easy to forget about the down-to-earth, unshowy performance of Martin Freeman – a usual fate for actors essaying the role of Watson down the years. But he gave such an exceptional performance here, as indeed he has done throughout: thoroughly normal and yet also quietly extraordinary, and given the best line of the episode when he says “Don’t be dead” to a tombstone, before about-turning and walking away with a subtle but emphatic military gait that bestows years of invaluable, believable backstory to this usually most nondescript of men.
The sheer pace and energy of the cat-and-mouse game between Homes and Moriarty kept the episode careering along at the highest speed, although it didn’t stint on character work either. The lab scene between Molly Hooper and Sherlock was a show-stopper, as Molly suddenly floored Holmes with an emotional perception he hadn’t thought possible from her or indeed from anyone. For me, the episode only flagged when it came to the final scenes at St Barts, which felt just a little drawn out; intended to milk the moment for all the tension and drama it was worth, I found that rather than white knuckles I was instead thinking “Oh, just get on with it now, will you?” – but I suspect the pacing of these moments simultaneously hid an awful lot of the intricate mechanism by which Sherlock will be restored to life come season 3.
And yes, of course there will be a season 3. Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson’s Reichenbach Fall was no more likely or able to put a stop to Holmes than was Conan Doyle’s original Final Solution. After having teased the viewers in advance of the airing by saying “This might be the end of Sherlock,” Moffat popped up on Twitter the next day and gleefully revealed that the matter had never been in doubt: the series had been re-commissioned a year ago not just for this season two, but also for a further season three at the same time. It had been a done deal before anyone even asked the question.
A nation breathes a sigh of relief: Mr Holmes and the redoubtable Dr Watson (Cumberbatch and Freeman both on day release from The Hobbit duties in New Zealand, presumably) will return in 2013. And we’ll get to find out just how Holmes manages to resurrect himself from one of the more serious and emphatically documented cases of absolutely certain sudden death seen outside of religious texts; and exactly how well Watson is going to take the news.
Have the strong smelling salts standing by.