Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall (Hartswood Films, BBC Wales, Masterpiece Theatre, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up screening “The Reichenbach Fall,” an episode of the new, much-talked-about BBC-TV series Sherlock, which updates the characters of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. John H. Watson and some of the other dramatis personae of the canonical stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to a modern-day (21st century London) setting — though, as the titles of this and the other episodes hint, each Sherlock episode has a connection — at least a tangential one — to the canon. Charles and I had both heard good things about this show — “though not from real Sherlockians!” Charles warned me — and we found it a breezy entertainment, not having that much to do with the real Sherlock Holmes Conan Doyle created but still fun. The major appeal in this show (written by Steve Thompson to a show format created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and breezily directed by Toby Haynes) is the rather Mixmaster-ish way elements of the canon got blended, spliced and otherwise manipulated to form an entertaining story. Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch, who despite his cumbersome name scored points with me for pronouncing the “t” in “often”) and Watson (Martin Freeman) are both cast considerably younger than they’ve been in more orthodox depictions, and at the time of this story they’re still living together in the fabled flat at 221B Baker Street — Gatiss and Moffat didn’t make the mistake Conan Doyle did of marrying Watson off and moving him out at the end of his second Holmes story, The Sign of Four — which, as Holmes develops a public reputation and becomes part of the celebriati, causes Watson some consternation because gossip columnists are pondering the situation of two unrelated men living together and hinting that Holmes and Watson are Gay. In this version of the story “The Reichenbach Fall” is actually a priceless painting by Turner, which is stolen and which Holmes recovers, and then there’s a montage of other important cases — a kidnap victim Holmes finds and rescues, a crooked international banker (isn’t that redundant?) whom Holmes apprehends, and a supposed “suicide” Holmes proves was murdered — that get Holmes’ name on the front covers of the tabloids and give him a public notoriety he doesn’t want.

Then we see a young man who’s supposed to be Professor James Moriarty (Andrew Scott) break into the display of the Crown Jewels (Charles, who’s been there, noted that the show depicted it as far less crowded than it actually is), the Bank of England and Pentonville Prison — though he doesn’t steal either the Crown Jewels or anything from the Bank of England’s vaults, nor does he release any of the prisoners. Instead, behaving less like Conan Doyle’s Moriarty (who went out of his way to be reclusive even to his confederates) than like the Joker (particularly as played by Jack Nicholson and later Heath Ledger in the Batman movies), Moriarty seats himself in the middle of the display of the Crown Jewels, wearing them along with a full-dress robe to make himself look like a king, when he’s arrested. Holmes is accosted in a men’s restroom by woman reporter Kitty Riley (Katherine Parkinson), and after some witty by-play between the two (the only reasons he can think of for her to accost him in a men’s room is either she wants to kill him or she wants to have sex with him, but later he not only figures out she’s a reporter but she’s planted clues on herself, like an inkstain, to see if he’s as good as his reputation for deducing things about people) she threatens to write an exposé about her if he doesn’t cooperate with her. Moriarty goes to trial and Holmes makes a mockery of the whole proceeding, upbraiding the judge and the prosecutor and making it clear he knows more about legal procedure than they do; Holmes ends up in jail for contempt of court — Watson has to bail him out — and Moriarty, though he puts on no defense, is acquitted because he’s been able to research every member of the jury, identify a relative or lover or friend they care about, and threaten to kill that person if he’s convicted. Eventually Moriarty hacks into the computer system and manages to delete all references to himself so he can pose as one “Richard Brook,” an actor whom Holmes has hired to portray a mythical criminal mastermind so he can make himself look good solving crimes attributed to the mythical “Moriarty” but actually committed by Holmes himself. He feeds this story to Kitty Riley (one suspects writer Thompson so named her to evoke comparison to the notorious “black” biographer Kitty Kelley) and she publishes it.

Also in the dramatis personae are Holmes’ brother Mycroft, the Diogenes Club (where talking, save in the Strangers’ Room, is strictly forbidden — something the Gatiss/Moffat Holmes cheerily ignores even though Conan Doyle’s Holmes was well aware of it) and a sinister post-9/11 plot twist in which Mycroft, whom Sherlock Holmes said in one of the canonical stories virtually was the British government, subjected Moriarty to “enhanced interrogation” to try to find out the secret computer code by which Moriarty could hack into any system anywhere in the world and get any computer to do what he wanted. (Not all the updating in this story works well, but transforming Moriarty from a brilliant mathematics professor who was the world’s authority on the binomial theorem into a super-hacker who can break through any computer security system was an inspired touch.) Eventually Moriarty plants professional assassins in Mrs. Hudson’s building and bids them kill the three people Holmes is closest to — Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade — unless Holmes commits suicide, which he does by jumping off a tall building in a confrontation clearly evoking the final one between Holmes and Moriarty in “The Final Problem” (though Moriarty doesn’t go over the side of the building with Holmes the way he did over the Reichenbach Falls in Conan Doyle’s story; instead he’s killed himself just before Holmes does, which is what convinces Holmes that the only way he can stop the assassins is to die himself), and the end of the story — hinted at by a framing sequence at the start showing Watson unburdening himself of his grief to a Black woman psychiatrist — shows Watson crying at Holmes’ tombstone and Holmes himself hanging out watching Watson mourn him … though with no clue as to how Holmes survived (I guess that will have to wait for the next season opener).

What’s most interesting about this adaptation is how edgy the characters are drawn — Conan Doyle’s Holmes was able to show some tact and behave normally when social situations required it, but the Gatiss/Moffat Holmes has an irresistible compulsion to show up his intellectual inferiors even when he has nothing to gain and everything to lose by doing so, and Watson is little better in that department. Charles and I have avoided the most recent Holmes movies — the two starring Robert Downey, Jr., which kept the Victorian setting of the original stories but did some of the same computerized gimcracks of this version and essentially made Holmes into little more than an action hero in a different sort of costume (when I heard Downey was playing Holmes I thought, “If he plays him the way he played the Singing Detective, that could be good; if he plays him the way he played Iron Man, that would be a disaster,” and given the commercial imperatives of the movie business these days I knew the latter was far more likely than the former), but Sherlock is an engaging revamp of the character and it’s a workmanlike show even though it could easily have been done with more sensitivity towards the values of the original stories and still work. I did find it amusing that, though everything else was clearly set in the world of today, the Holmes/Watson residence at 221B Baker Street actually looked (except for the excessively trendy electric lamps that illuminated it) very much like a 19th century apartment!