Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Review: Sherlock

Sherlock (2010)

 When I heard that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss were making a new series about Sherlock Holmes set in the 21st century, I steeled myself to be bitterly disappointed.  From the start it looked and sounded like one of those horrible "reimaginings" that one unimaginative filmmaker and television producer after another have inflicted upon the long-suffering public as if punishing them for daring to love the original versions. I could see a dozen ways in which this series could have failed and a dozen more reasons why they should never have tried in the first place.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I slumped in front of the talking aquarium expecting the worst and found my predictions proven utterly wrong.  Believe it or not, Sherlock not only works, it works beautifully in a way that pleases even the fussiest Holmesian puriest– that is, me.

Moffat and Gatiss said it best in an interview that they did for the DVD release where they explained that what they were trying to do is repeat what Universal did with Holmes and Watson during the Second World War.  Partly to allow Holmes to help fight the Nazis and mainly to create a film series on a B-movie budget, Universal shifted 221B Baker Street from the age of Queen Victoria into that of King George VI.  And it worked.  By retaining the essential characters of Holmes and Watson while altering only those elements needed to update them, Universal (helped by the inestimable talents of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) made Holmes a modern day creature and not an anachronism that had lived beyond its time.  Indeed, the Rathbone/Bruce series is to this day recognised as the single most successful adaption of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories to the screen.  Moffat and Gatiss's wanted to do the same thing for Holmes in the 21st century.

The result is nothing less than impressive.  The casting of Benedict Cumberbatch is inspired.   He's the best Holmes since Jeremy Brett and though his youthfulness may grate on those more used to middle-aged Sherlocks, people often forget that Holmes was only in his thirties when A Study in Scarlet was written.  Martin Freeman has a refreshing scepticism in his Watson and Moffat and Gatiss had a clever idea when they took the Watson who fought in Afghanistan in the 19th century and turned him into one who fought in Afghanistan in the 21st.  They even had a neat way of handling the knotty problem of where exactly Watson was wounded. Even 221B Baker street looks right, though they changed the location from the real baker Street, which is far too bustling today, to the quieter stand-in of North Gower Street.

 The three stories that make up season one are clever with the right mix of humour and suspense, though the new mysteries aren't up to the originals (Be fair, they never are).  Where Sherlock truly falls down is in the level it pitches at. Where the original stories were middlebrow affairs for a middle class audience, Sherlock is painfully lowbrow for whatever it is that the latest focus group says the BBC should aim at.   The other stumbling blocks are the stale homosexual jokes with the distinct smell of the last century, which mean that Sherlock sits on the depressingly long list of television shows that my daughter isn't allowed to watch yet. 

Better than the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes, which kept the period but "re-imagined" Holmes, Watson and London out of all recognition, Sherlock will never replace the period versions, but it is an experiment that works and works very well.

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