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 »
It’s been almost exactly three years since the last ‘regular’ episode of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ modern Sherlock, not counting the one-off 2016 New Year’s special which took Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson out of time and back to the original Victorian-era setting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.
When last we were with Sherlock, it appeared that his arch enemy Moriarty had risen from the dead to threaten Britain with a new crime. Three years is a long period over which to sustain interest in any cliffhanger, so you’d expect “The Six Thatchers” to waste no more time getting stuck into the long-awaited denouement, but you’d be gravely mistaken. Instead, the whole Moriarty aspect is quickly kicked to the kerb, used briefly as a plot device to get Sherlock reinstated after his cold bloded murder of Charles Augustus Magnussen in “His Last Vow” and thereafter as a distraction and a red herring to obscure the true crime that is underway, which is signalled by the destruction of six china busts of Margaret Thatchers in varying locations around the country. 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 all-too-brief series 3 of Sherlock is over, aired in just 11 days after a wait of nearly two years since the cliffhanger ending of the previous series. I’ve already commented on the first episode, “The Empty Hearse,” which I greatly enjoyed even though for many viewers it couldn’t live up to the impossible expectations that had built up in the interim.
The online griping really started with the second of the three instalments, “The Sign of Three,” which took time out from crime solving (or so it seemed) to focus almost exclusively on the wedding of John Watson (Martin Freeman) and Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington) with Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) comedically out of his element after having best man duties imposed on him. The result was the nearest thing you’ll ever get to Sherlock Holmes: The Sitcom and I have to say that I loved it to bits and laughed throughout, the absolute highlight being the way that Sherlock’s ‘metatag wordcloud’ view of the world was completely compromised by too much beer on the stag night. Read the rest of this entry »
Christmas is over, the New Year has been seen in, but just before we exit holiday standby mode here are three quick reviews of BBC television festive fare from the last week. There are some mild, implied spoilers but nothing too overt.
Sherlock S3 E1 “The Empty Hearse” (BBC One)
The BBC’s high-quality modern version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous consulting detective finally made its long-awaited return to our screens two years after Sherlock Holmes’ apparently fatal plunge off a hospital rooftop. There had been much speculation about how Holmes cheated death and the episode had great fun in dodging and deferring that question, instead presenting some of the more outlandish Internet theories that have been bandied around in the interim (one of which included a lovely cameo by Derren Brown); when the real solution is finally rolled out late in the day, the in-show conspiracy theorist deflates and pronounces it “Disappointing” before immediately picking holes in it, refusing to believe the answer – just like the real-life social media reaction that followed after the show aired. Co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat know their audience, that’s for sure. Read the rest of this entry »
These days I strictly ration my visits to the cinema, with the exception of two franchises that will immediately override the austerity lockout: one is the James Bond series, and the other consists of the Star Trek films. Currently the tally of each stands at 13 for the former up to last year’s Skyfall (or 14 if you include Never Say Never Again, which of course I don’t) while Star Trek Into Darkness marks the 12th film of the science fiction series that I’ll have dutifully trotted out to see during its initial theatrical run.
Let’s cut through the suspense and deliver the bottom line: is it any good? The answer is yes, very. If you love the 2009 JJ Abrams-helmed reboot (see my contemporary review here) then you’re almost guaranteed to love this follow-up since it contains all the elements that made the first film so successful, including the jaw-dropping spectacular visuals, non-stop adrenalin-rush thrills, the jittery camerawork and jump zooms and of course the lens flare that slathers every shot to the point of self-parody. Of course if you were among that group that felt the first film made a travesty of the original spirit of the Star Trek series then none of this is going to do anything to persuade you to the contrary this time, either. And I confess, I had at least one foot in that camp and wasn’t as utterly thrilled with Abrams’ first outing as many people were as a result. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
Sherlock is back! I confess that I’m somewhat amazed by how stunningly successful and popular the original 2011 three-part series was, the character of Sherlock Holmes having been done to death so many times that you could almost hear people rolling their eyeballs around their sockets at the prospect of another; but Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss produced a genuinely fresh and strikingly new take on the great detective, taking cues and inspirations from the original tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but then spinning them off into something altogether new and exciting.
Even so, this series – like Moffat’s parallel work on Doctor Who – makes no allowances for viewers who aren’t willing to work to keep up and who possess a modicum of intelligence. This isn’t the sort of programme you can watch while multi-tasking, it demands all your attention. I think that’s a good thing, but it can get Moffat into trouble as Doctor Who has shown at times; but he’s unapologetic and even baldly states in this first episode of the second mini-series of Sherlock that “smart is the new sexy” – and we not only believe the sentiment, we embrace it wholeheartedly and keep it close. But that relationship can still be strained, even now.
This second series takes off exactly where the first left-off – a poolside stand off between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Andrew Scott playing ‘Jim’ Moriarty (deliciously styled in this modern version as a ‘consulting criminal’ making him the perfect mirror image of Holmes’ consulting detective.) That segues seamlessly into the new story, which is initially based heavily on one of the best known Conan Doyle stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia”. This time the royal family at risk is Britain’s own, resulting in Holmes and Watson being whisked off to the palace while in the middle of another case. This puts them on the trail of a dominatrix called ‘The Woman’, Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver who makes an unforgettable entry into the story dressed in … earrings.
Holmes’ ruse to get the blackmail material she possesses is the same as in the original short story, but that’s barely the beginning of proceedings which extends the romantic cat-and-mouse game played between Holmes and Adler. Cumberbatch plays this new side of Holmes quite brilliantly, while Martin Freeman is still quite astoundingly good as John Watson and the relationship between the two is still as wonderfully drawn as it was in the first series. Gatiss himself is back as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, the two providing a sparklingly barbed relationship with poor Watson caught in the middle, while Una Stubbs is also coming into her own as a very resourceful Mrs Hudson and pathologist Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) continues to carry a doomed torch for Sherlock and consequently features in one of the most awkward and touching scenes of the entire 90 minutes.
Just to emphasise that this is a very modern Holmes, technology plays a major part in proceedings: Watson’s blog plays an important role in the story (and listen out for the little gems of more reworked original Holmes titles for the blog posts), the McGuffin is a password-protected smartphone, and even Twitter gets a name-check. The series continues with its audacious gimmick of putting text messages up on screen, and it continues to work unfeasibly well with some lovely visual touches, such as when the text is faintly reflected back in the window behind a character as they’re reading the phone’s screen. And in this episode, the whole texting strand is also augmented by the quite brilliant special ringtone that Adler has set to announce the arrival of her messages: so much so that as well as being laugh-out-loud funny every time, it also plays an important role in itself at two key points of the story.
The whole thing is hurtling along at a million miles an hour keeping an entire state banquet’s worth of cutlery up in the air, and it’s perhaps no surprise that there are a few breakages along the way. The case that Holmes and Watson were working on is thrown away as of little importance and in fact it’s others marked by only a single line in a montage that we’re supposed to recall as the plot comes together at indecent speed. Whiplash (appropriately given Adler’s profession) is a real danger as the story goes into overdrive to tie everything up in the final minutes, and while “smart is the new sexy” this is really straining even the brightest audience’s intellect close to breaking point. You’ll have to rewatch it again, and possibly another couple of times more, in order to really understand how it all fits together. Maybe that’s no bad thing, and possibly even the result Moffat consciously intends.
It’s a Moffat trait that we’ve been critical of in Doctor Who, but whether you’re pro- or anti- this approach it certainly fits much better here in Sherlock (which is all about puzzles, deception and misdirection after all) than it does in an ostensibly action-adventure science fiction family show. As a result, it seems a far less serious flaw for Sherlock than it does the Doctor; but a minor flaw nonetheless in an otherwise perfect gem.
Moffat seems to manage to attract whole legions of vociferous critics attacking his work these days – he has become the number one target for Daily Mail readers in the last year, who turned first on his work for Doctor Who and now seem to be taking aim on his award-winning Sherlock as well. Here it seems to be the presence of implied (although artistically hidden) nudity and the very implication of Adler’s ‘moderate scolding’ profession before the 9pm watershed. Well, for one thing, scheduling is up to the BBC controllers, not Moffat; and for another, this is getting even sillier than the early extremes of political correctness demanded by the obsessed Mary Whitehouse in the 70s. The kind of ultra-sensitivity of people criticising Sherlock would leave you nothing but fluffy kittens (and emphatically none of Mrs Slocombe’s pussies) if they had their way; although it’s “odd” that the criticism is always directed at BBC shows and never about the catalogue of improprieties at, say, ITV’s Downton Abbey.
Perhaps more serious is the criticism from long-time Holmes aficionados that the story is somehow misogynistic and/or betrays the character of Irene Adler from the Conan Doyle originals. On the one hand, ‘The Woman’ here is more striking and capable than any Irene Adler ever seen before on screen. Compare it against the by-rote and quickly backgrounded and finally predictably damsel-in-distress equivalent character played by Rachel McAdams in the Robert Downey Jr. 2009 motion picture. Pulver’s interpretation absolutely wipes the floor with Sherlock for 89 minutes of the running time and is totally in command – most memorably when she totally throws him off with her initial underdressed entrance into Holmes’ life and he’s completely unable to read anything about her. She’s not a character you’re likely to forget in a hurry, and that makes her a very worthy Irene Adler far above the usual sea of mediocrity. However, it’s still a shame she ‘loses’ at the end (unlike in the book) and has to be saved by Sherlock, and that so much of her power in the story appears to be predicated upon sex.
Next week we move on to “The Hounds of Baskerville”, written by series co-creator and occasional Mycroft, Mark Gatiss. Doubtless there will be storms of criticism of implied animal cruelty or outrageous liberties taken with the plot. We can but hope – otherwise where would the fun be in this dependably, deliciously dark detective delight?
There is certainly a huge amount to admire in this new big screen adaptation of John Le Carré’s seminal espionage story.
From the stunning production design with its immaculate attention to detail (even down to the vintage packet of Trebor Mints Smiley toys with while awaiting his prey), the way it takes its time to use that detail to build character and story, the uniformly brilliant performances by a superb A-list cast (including Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Kathy Burke, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch) and a precision screenplay that manages to condense down a lengthy original book to a manageable two hour film, extracting a rare clarity of plot and theme without losing any of the complexity and intelligence of the source material, it’s hard to see how this film could have been bettered.
Where there are changes and alterations to the original, they’re invariably for the better: the ambushing of Jim Prideaux becomes a nailbiting set piece in a café, and the film improves immeasurably on the BBC TV series of the 1970s by reducing the Ricki Tarr story to its barest essentials (whereas it was previously a lengthy distraction, practically a separate novella dropped into the original.) The Christmas party addition is also inspired, bringing all the characters together in one place and under different circumstances to better throw light on subsequent events.
But for all the admiration I have for this film, I wish I liked it a little more. Instead it’s rather like looking at a pristine diamond: one appreciates the perfection of the stone and the craftsmanship, but it’s still rather cold and icy. I had a not dissimilar reaction to director Tomas Alfredson’s previous acknowledged classic, Let the Right One In.
In some ways the lack of a true passion toward the film is inevitable and perhaps even intentional, given that the film is set in the deeply disillusioned 70s and deals with a world in which lovers, friends, colleagues – even one’s employer and country – are routinely betrayed, and the only defence anyone has is to emotionally shut down. Certainly that’s true of Smiley, who is intended in the book as impassive and almost a ‘blank slate’. The film’s most powerful moments are when this icy veneer cracks – such as the spectacular look of pure love that Smiley tries but fails to suppress while looking at his wife at the office party, bookended by the abject look of despair later when he realises her betrayal. Or the look shared between the “inseperables”, Hayden and Prideaux; or the heart-rending moment when Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch in one of the film’s best turns) has to give up the person he loves in the aftermath of one of the film’s most nerve-wracking moments.
Tom Hardy is another one of the stand-out performers here – his rough, uncouth Rikki Tarr successfully blending the lout with the charmer, the streetwise thug co-existing with the cunning intelligence operative in a way that Hywel Bennett in the BBC version never did. But there are set-piece moments for all the stars who get their chance to shine, save for an oddly under-utilised Hinds whose part seems to have been reduced in the edit to little more than “looking suspicious.”
As for Oldman – it’s hard to think of another movie star who would be so willing or so able to play a part that requires him to do very little for much of the time except blend into the background and disappear for much of the time. Nonetheless he still gets more meat to sink his teeth into than did Alec Guinness (as good as Oldman is, Sir Alec’s spirit hangs heavy over the role to this day) who took ‘inscrutable’ to a whole new level. However, for my money the scene where Oldman’s Smiley gets lost in the memory of meeting Russian spymaster Karla and starts reenacting it for Guillam is one of those moments that is an undeniable coup de theatre but not entirely successful or in line with the character or the film’s otherwise unflashy nature.
Otherwise the ‘star’ of the film is how it looks – and feels, and smells, as the cigarette smoke practically pours off the screen. It stylishly recreates the period in a way that ironically the BBC version never could – mainly because that was filmed in the 70s in which the story is set. It therefore had no concept of the world outside the window being a ‘period’ and the result is just filmed in a realistic documentary style. In the film, the evocation of the period is powerful and flawless – save for the curious use of a very old George Formby song that appears to be purely a directorial conceit even while it breaks the meticulously created mise en scene established elsewhere. It’s a small, irrelevant flaw; but in many ways, it’s that flaw that gives the film a bit of personality and character outside its icy perfection.
To finish, an example of the screenplay’s lovely sense of structure: it begins with Smiley and his boss, friend and mentor Control leaving the MI6 building in disgrace, watched by everyone in the Service. Two hours later, the ending eloquently mirrors that sequence: and the sense of justice having been done and good things possible at last for the right people gives a rare surge of upbeat optimism that gives a surprising emotional payoff after all.