Monday, August 5, 2013

Sherlock! A Scandal in Belgravia (BBC-TV, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was a Masterpiece Mystery showing on PBS of an episode in the intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying BBC-TV updating of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock! These programs — they only film about three or four per year — have generally got better reviews than the U.S. attempt to rework Holmes in a modern-day setting, Elementary, but I simply don’t find them as entertaining and I suspect Charles doesn’t, either. Both shows make Holmes a good deal more anti-social than he was in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories — Conan Doyle was too much the good Victorian to have Holmes openly outrage conventional morality (in last night’s Sherlock!, “A Scandal in Belgravia” — each Sherlock! episode riffs off the canon for its title — he shows up naked, except for a strategically placed bedsheet, for a meeting at the Royal Palace); Conan Doyle’s Holmes, for all his fabled eccentricities, usually followed ordinary norms and when he didn’t it wasn’t to be outrageous but simply because he got too wrapped up in whatever he was thinking about at the moment to care. Ironically, the Sherlock! writers’ decision to come closer to the canon and use not only character names but also (altered) titles and situations from Conan Doyle only makes their stories more irritating when they do diverge from the original.

“A Scandal in Belgravia,” like the Conan Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia” from which it takes its title, centers around Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), only in this version she’s not an opera singer but a professional dominatrix who in the course of her employment has learned a lot of government and corporate secrets and stores them all on a smartphone that becomes the MacGuffin. Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), Watson (Martin Freeman) and Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Mark Gattis, who doesn’t look at all like Benedict Cumberbatch, the series’ star, and plays Mycroft considerably more prissily than I’d imagined him from Conan Doyle’s original) get involved in a race for the smartphone that includes agents of the CIA (no Anglo-American cooperation for these writers!) and others, including two characters named Neilson (Todd Boyce) and Jeanette (Oona Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter) — an in-joke reference from writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat to Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald? — that also involves the British secret service loading up an airliner with dead people because they’ve received word that terrorists are going to blow it up over the Atlantic and they don’t want the terrorists to know they’re on to them but they also don’t want still-living people to die when the bomb goes off — only the plane-of-the-dead doesn’t fly after all because Holmes let the plan slip to Adler inadvertently when he e-mailed or texted her.

 Sherlock! is engaging and generally does a good job of incorporating modern technology, particularly modern communications (Watson’s tales of Holmes’ adventures are published not in the Strand magazine but on a blog) into the Holmes mythos, but it’s also frustrating and annoyingly complicated plot-wise. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t my idea of a great Holmes: he’s too short, too wimpy-looking — like a guy in his late 20’s you’d see at a Gay bar still desperately trying to pass himself off as a twink — and as annoying as Jonny Lee Miller sometimes gets on Elementary! he’s a much more authoritative performer and more believable as Holmes. Elementary! got criticized by Holmesians even before it aired for making Watson a woman — but Miller and Lucy Liu have real chemistry together, which Cumberbatch and Freeman don’t. (And whose dorky idea was it to have Holmes address Watson as “John”? In the Conan Doyle stories he never used Watson’s first name!) Charles seemed a bit put out that Gatiss and Moffat didn’t keep Irene Adler a singer — and it occurred to me that even if they hadn’t wanted to make her an opera singer they could have had her be a Madonna-style entertainer who plays sexual dominatrix both on stage as part of her act and off-stage for real.