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Friday, December 17, 2010

SHERLOCK -- DVD review by porfle

For over a century, authors and filmmakers have been unable to resist rethinking, revising, and generally screwing around with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic master detective Sherlock Holmes.  Even the silver screen's gold standard Holmes, Basil Rathbone, found himself transplanted from Victorian-era London into the middle of World War II in order to apply his peerless deductive skills toward fighting the Axis.  Over the years Holmes has met Sigmund Freud and Jack the Ripper, battled invading Martians, and exposed his private life for all to see.

While many of these updates are respectful of the original material, some are mere gimmicks designed to spoof or sensationalize.  But the three-part BBC-TV series SHERLOCK (2010), which places Holmes and the redoubtable Dr. John H. Watson squarely in the 21st century with the rest of us, is no gimmick.  Rather, it's an exhilarating opportunity for the celebrated sleuth and his loyal sidekick to engage a whole new world of mysteries.

Indeed, this Sherlock would fit comfortably into any time period.  He's not a fish out of water--his dynamic, self-contained character resists the need to be "updated" save for the modern detecting tools of which he readily avails himself.  Of course, he still has his violin, not to mention his problems with certain controlled substances.  The shag pipe has been replaced by nicotine patches, and instead of a journal, Watson records their adventures in his blog.

Holmes' rivalrous sibling Mycroft is here as well, now a member of the British government's inner circle and played very amusingly by Mark Gatiss.  Needless to say, the shadowy presence of a certain Moriarty hovers over it all.  Each episode is beautifully directed and shot, with inventive scene transitions and a fine musical score by David Arnold and Michael Price.  The scripts are replete with crackling dialogue and bits of business which convey the spirit of Doyle's original characters and stories in loving detail.  With all the familiar pieces falling into place in such a satisfying manner, SHERLOCK is a deep, delightful wallow in Holmesiana.

It took about half a minute for the wonderfully-named Benedict Cumberbatch to win me over as Holmes.  We first find him in the morgue, furiously laying into a corpse with a riding crop to assess the bruises.  Blithely unaware that a smitten attendant named Molly Hooper (Loo Brealey) is coming on to him, he responds to her timid invitation to coffee with a curt "Black, two sugars please, I'll be upstairs" before dashing off to the laboratory.  This leads directly to the fateful meeting between the two odd ducks, Holmes and Watson (Martin Freeman), both seeking a roommate as in the first chapter of the original Holmes novel, "A Study in Scarlet."  (This premiere episode is similarly titled "A Study in Pink.") 

Noticing Watson's crutch, the inquisitive Holmes asks, "Afganistan or Iraq?"  Watson, as in his initial incarnation, has been wounded both physically and mentally in the war and spends his days in therapy, but we get the feeling his unhappy life is about to get a lot more interesting.  "We don't know a single thing about each other," he says dubiously when Holmes takes it for granted that they'll be flatmates.

Fans know exactly what's coming next.  Our shared anticipation is rewarded when the droll, almost insanely perceptive Holmes casually reels off much of Watson's life story, based on simple observation, without missing a beat.  It's a marvelous scene, establishing his eccentric character beautifully with a few exquisite strokes.  Before long, both are ensconced in the familiar surroundings of 221B Baker Street, fussed over by their dear old landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs).

"When the police are out of their depth, which is always, they consult me," he boasts when Detective Lastrade (Rupert Graves) of Scotland Yard summons him to the scene of a mysterious suicide.  Holmes invites Watson along as a medical consultant, thus beginning their grand collaboration.  A series of apparent self-poisonings has Scotland Yard baffled, and it's up to Holmes to figure out why unrelated Londoners are killing themselves with identical poison pills for no apparent reason.  This adventure will eventually lead him into a riveting battle of wits with the most unlikely of opponents.  

With a frustrated Lestrade constantly calling upon Holmes for help, the two bear a resemblance to Batman and Commissioner Gordon.  Which is fitting since, after all, Batman was partly based on Holmes in the first place.  (Maybe that's why the otherwise useless Robin was invented, to serve the Watson role of sounding board and appreciative audience to "the world's greatest detective.")

A clever convention that appears frequently is the use of floating text to show us not only what's popping up on various cell phones (Holmes prefers texting to talking) and other sources, but also lets us in on what's running through Holmes' mind as he riffles through various visual clues.  This way, he doesn't have to constantly explain everything to Watson for our benefit, and we get to see his thought processes in real time as he gathers and assesses information at lightning speed.

In the second episode, "The Blind Banker", Holmes sniffs out a racket involving stolen historical artifacts smuggled in from China and sold at auction.  When two of the smugglers are found dead in classic "locked room" scenarios, the killer's trail leads to a scary Chinese criminal cult that eventually gets their hands on our heroes.  While this episode gets slightly bogged down in procedure at times, there's plenty of exotic atmosphere, great character byplay, and a keenly suspenseful finale.

The third and last story of the season, "The Great Game", is an utter joy from start to finish.  It begins with Watson returning to the flat to find Holmes shooting bullets into the wall out of boredom, followed by that famous exchange in which Holmes reveals he doesn't know that the Earth goes round the sun.  Such information, he explains, isn't necessary in his work, and, in contemporary terms, he likens his brain to a hard drive from which all extraneous data must be deleted. 

The plot involves a mad bomber who communicates with Holmes through hostages who are wired with explosives and forced to read their captor's text messages aloud over the phone.  With only hours to solve each of the killer's mysterious puzzles and rescue the hostages one by one, the pace is frantic and the action non-stop, culminating in a final revelatory scene that should have Holmes fans in paroxysms of geek bliss. 

Do we ever get to see the big "M"?  Yes.  I won't go into detail, but the eventual face-to-face encounter between the world's greatest consulting detective and the world's greatest criminal mastermind is a sensational pay-off to all the build-up, and scintillating as hell.  (The words "You complete me" came to mind during their verbal sparring.)  It ends in a cliffhanger which, in a way, reminded me of a certain story called "The Final Problem."

The 2-disc DVD from Warner Home Video and BBC contains all three feature-length episodes (270 minutes total) in a 16:9 aspect ratio and Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo.  Subtitles are in English.  Episodes 1 and 3 contain cast and crew commentaries.  Other bonuses include a making-of featurette, "Unlocking Sherlock", and the original hour-long pilot which was later expanded and reshot to become "A Study in Pink."
Do I recommend SHERLOCK?  It's all I can do to keep from coming over to your house and forcing you to watch it with me.  This is intoxicating stuff for Holmes addicts, and I can't wait to see what's next.  In the words of the modern-day Sherlock: "The game is on!"

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