Oh, Sherlock…

sherl4b2017.5: Sherlock Season 4 (BBC HD)

Oh dear. Sherlock was such fun, once.

What a nonsensical, self-indulgent mess this was. Perhaps it just became too big to fail and with nowhere to go, went up its own arse instead. It appears that writer/producer Steven Moffat has done to Sherlock what he did to Who. Its so utterly over-confident and ignorant of storytelling basics that it beggars belief; it’s almost a modern tragedy how something so precious and beloved, so clever and witty and imaginative can become so… boring. Halfway through last nights final episode and I was actually bored, waiting for it to finish.

Lets look at the basic storytelling issues. Consider that in seasons one and two the show was sharp and made sense with twists and turns that felt honest and earned. Lets look at what season four left us with. We are expected to believe Holmes had a sister but doesn’t remember her, and no-one, not even his parents, ever mentioned her or any sign of her left for our super-sleuth to have ever noticed in four seasons. And she lived in a top secret super-prison off the coast that she turns into an evil lair like some Bond villain, and yes, actually had a visit from Dr Moriarty for a Christmas present. Handily, although its out on an unmapped island off the coast somewhere, it’s a prison that she can nip out of easily so she can  catch a bus in the first episode to flirt with Dr Watson, or, in episode two, spend a few afternoons analysing him by posing as his therapist. Or in this third episode pilot a drone with a high-tech grenade/bomb to take out Sherlocks pad. If she’s loose around London playing with Sherlock and company for two episodes, why retreat back to her prison cell in episode three to play Hannibal Lecter? Indeed, did she pilot the drone all the way from her prison cell? And if she’s just toying with her brother, why risk blowing him up to kingdom come? Maybe because a big explosion looks good in trailers?

And we are expected to believe that while she is doing all this, in her fragile state of mind she’s actually a frightened little girl on an aircraft, and that ultimately love conquers all? Oh, Sherlock, what happened to you?

Which is exactly the real crime here. It isn’t about telling a self-contained logical story about the world’s greatest detective detecting. The crimes are secondary to the in-jokes and the over-acting. Episode one should have been a warning, with the overwrought death of Mary that gave her a bullet in the chest and another few minutes to chat about everything before dying, and then a few more minutes talking on a dvd message, and then in the second episode hanging around as a ghost to chat some more. Enough, already. Its nonsense and far removed from the tight storytelling of season one.

Horrible waste of time and talent.

The Imitation Game (2014)

im22016.43: The Imitation Game (Amazon Prime/VOD)

It is tempting to suggest that The Imitation Game is all about Benedict Cumberbatch’s pretty extraordinary performance as Alan Turing, the mathematics prodigy who is recruited to work at Bletchley Radio Manufacturing to covertly crack the German’s Enigma coding machine. Cumberbatch is brilliant at showing a vulnerable side to so many of his characters- even during Shakespeare’s infamous character-assassination of Richard III in the recent Hollow Crown series. It is likewise demonstrated in the vulnerability and warmth in his generally cool and aloof Sherlock Holmes. With Alan Turing he works similar magic portraying an eccentric, socially-challenged genius who can make more sense of numbers and cryptography than he can people, while trying to hide his homosexuality that always threatens to destroy his career and make him a social pariah. It’s a fascinating performance and I can understand all the media attention to it during awards season (unfortunately the film arrived at the same time as Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything- two career-highlight performances of two real-life scientists, what’s the odds? There’s a stat the real Turing might have found interesting to fathom).

Fortunately there is more to The Imitation Game than a great central performance, and while on the subject of The Theory of Everything, I actually think The Imitation Game is the better film, whatever one thinks of the merits of the two star performances. It benefits from a clearer focus on what the story is.  The Imitation Game brilliantly conveys the world of code-breaking and spycraft during World War Two, and is centered on Turing’s work to create a machine capable of quickly performing 159 million permutations to break the German Enigma code that’s changed daily. Turing’s proposed solution proves to be a leap of thinking and technology that seems quite insane to his co-workers and superiors.

im1The film establishes the high stakes by showing war footage and explaining the astronomical numbers of lives at risk, both on the frontline and on the homefront, with the Allies losing the war. The  importance of breaking the Enigma code is paramount and the tension is palpable, but for Turing it’s not just simply a matter of building his machine- it’s maintaining his position long enough to succeed, and being able to communicate with and manage his team without the whole project collapsing around him. As Turing’s work on the machine progresses, the film uses a framing device set in 1951 and flashbacks to his childhood to further delve into Turing’s character and background. In other films this can often threaten to derail the pace and distract from the core plot, but The Imitation Game manages to get the balance right.

The film isn’t perfect though. Although the film pursues the fact of Turing’s homesexuality in a society in which it is illegal, and makes great weight of it, it could be argued that the film nonetheless skirts around it for fear of upsetting less liberal viewers. We never see Turing in a relationship with a man and there’s nothing even approaching a gay sex scene, so other than showing him socially awkward amongst people there’s little to really imply he is gay other when he admits it or the framing device concerning a police investigation in 1951. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see a film in which a character’s homosexuality isn’t bashed over your head with graphic scenes. Besides, a subtext to the film is all about secrets and Turing’s attempts to keep that side of his life private.

On the whole it is a very entertaining, thrilling and inspirational film blessed with a great central performance and a fine supporting cast. While some may criticise how the film skirts around the central issue of homesexuality, its nontheless a sober reminder of how much society has moved on and changed for the better in the decades since. The injustice of what happened to Alan Turing and his status as a war hero whose work arguably saved millions of lives is an important story to tell, and on the whole this film does this exceedingly well.

 

Mr Holmes (2015)

holmes2016.36: Mr Holmes (Amazon Prime/VOD)

In many ways, this film isn’t really a Sherlock Holmes film, its more a character piece examining the difficulties of old age and failing memory. For fans of the character though it’s likely a very nice coda to his (fictional) life-story.  Mr Holmes imagines the master detective living to the ripe old age of 93, and living in a world quite unlike that of his earlier adventures. It is 1947, and Holmes is living in an anonymous  coastal countryside retreat with a widowed housekeeper and her young son. Holmes is preoccupied with his very last case from thirty years before, with his failing memory making it seemingly impossible to piece it together. His fractured recollections are told in flashback, as is a further plotline of more recent memories of a trip to Japan in search of a plant that can be used as a medicinal drug.

This latter sub-plot is troublesome for the film and largely turns out to be of such little benefit to the film that it could well have been dropped entirely. The film would have been all the better for more focus on the 1947  ‘present’ and the subsequent untangling of the mysteries of Holmes final case.Having this secondary series of flashbacks (the two plotlines running through the film as a separate series of flashbacks) might work well in a book but in a film can damage any pace or progress of the seperate arcs.

Ian McKellen does remarkable work playing two Sherlock Holmes-  one a 93 year-old struggling with losing his faculties and the other a 60 year-old still in his detective ‘prime’ on his final case. Its a great performance (augmented by some great make-up) that raises the film to something greater than its parts. If it were just a film about an old man struggling with losing his mind and questions of identity and fading memory it would still be a very good film- the fact that the main character is Sherlock Holmes, with all the literary and cinematic baggage that entails, makes its quite a powerful experience and a fulfilling film.

It isn’t perfect – I have those mentioned issues with that plotline set in Japan- but it’s certainly  a very worthwhile film, and I’m sure rather poignant for fans of the character. Its certainly more complex and thoughtful than I had expected. It left me wondering about perhaps someone making a similar film one day about another famous fictional character, James Bond; a film of an old, physically impaired spy looking back on his career and one particular mission (particularly if his ‘missions’ took place in the 1960s of the original films) might make for a very interesting film too. Maybe there will be an opportunity for something like that someday.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

hound1I watched Arrow’s excellent new blu-ray release of The Hound of the Baskervilles a few days prior to the sad passing of Christopher Lee. I make a point of stating this because, well, it won’t ever be quite the same in future watching a film featuring him. The knowledge that there will be no more films made with Lee is a sad one, and it can’t help but colour your thinking whilst watching him now in any of his great films like The Wicker Man or Dracula or The Devil Rides Out. Some of these great old films are passing out of living memory and into history, an inevitable fact of life as the years pass but nonetheless a sobering one. Part of the power and magic of movies- performances captured onto film forever, the work of actors waiting to be discovered and appreciated by viewers yet unborn. Sadly the audiences for some of these older films may wane as time goes on -later versions of Sherlock Holmes may make later generations think that a 1959 Holmes film is pretty much redundant. That’s their loss. This is a great little movie.

Discovering something ‘new’, like an unwatched Kubrick or Hitchcock film, is something rather special, which is how I approached Baskervilles as I had never seen it before and it starred the great Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes. Regular readers of this blog will know of my appreciation of Cushing, and seeing him in something new (to me anyway) is always something to treasure. His Holmes here is a vivid, almost mercurial one, quite a surprise when compared to his dour Van Helsing or obsessed Victor Frankenstein. He clearly relishes the part of Holmes and makes it a rather physical role rather than a still, intellectual one- there’s a jolly, almost youthful exuberance here. Its fun. Reminds me of his Captain Clegg.

Its a Hammer film so its obvious why the Baskerville story was chosen, as it leans towards the horror of the story in a similar way to how Hammer’s first Dracula pared Stoker’s tale to the bone but it’s a very good version of the tale, and Cushing’s evident fun in the role makes me sad Hammer didn’t continue the series with another Holmes film. Would have certainly been a welcome diversion from Cushing’s usual Hammer roles. The film’s prologue is pure Gothic Hammer, as we see the dastardly Sir Hugo Baskerville launch the legend of the Baskerville curse with some gusto. Hammer was great at this stuff and it’s a startling way to start a Holmes movie.

Christopher Lee’s role, as Sir Henry Baskerville, is most atypical. There’s nothing threatening about him here and he even gets something of a romance. Clearly this is before he became typecast (he was just too good as a villain, with so much presence on-screen) and its a pleasure to see him in something so unusual. Hammer’s Baskervilles is clearly one of those ‘what-if’ movies- what if they made more Holmes movies, and Cushing starred in them, what if Lee had gotten the opportunity of more of these kind of roles. Well. Its fun to wonder.