Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
When it comes to this film, devout fans of the famous Baker Street detective are severely divided. Some of us hate it. Others adore it. We can argue on its merits or lack thereof until the end of time. I believe it depends on how much of a Puritan you are and how hard you try on whether or not you'll find this TNT production worthwhile. Naturally curiosity to see which side was right overcame reason and when I had a chance to obtain this film cheaply, I took it. The result left me with mixed feelings, wishing they might have trimmed some aspects and lengthened others, but overall I found it a reasonable case if not entirely true to the calculating nature of the Holmes we know and love.
Two figures run through the shadowy streets of London, engaged in violent swordplay. After a stunning duel the older man reaches for his revolver and is shot and killed by the younger. His body falls into the local sewage system. Two policeman who happen to be passing by at the time place the young man under arrest. His name is Sherlock Holmes (James D'Arcy) and he has just killed a criminal mastermind. Holmes was put on the case by the appearance of a beautiful young widow being blackmailed by an unknown fiend over her husband's previous indiscretions. The news of his success spreads through London via the talented writings of a struggling journalist and Holmes is granted a measure of respect by Inspector Lestrade (Nicholas Gecks) at Scotland Yard. Dealing with his newfound popularity becomes something of a challenge and it's not long before another case is presented at his fingertips. This client is not so wonderful. He's one of the local drug warlords and fears for his life.
His competition -- those who peddle opium and morphine on the streets -- are being systematically eliminated. Holmes would have no interest in the case were it not for the irregularity of its victims. They are brutally slashed from ear to ear and their bodies injected with a powerful narcotic. Through his client pulling social strings, Holmes is allowed to sit in on the autopsy of the most recent victim. In charge of the procedure is Dr. John Watson (Roger Morlidge), a fresh-out-of-medical school aspiring journalist with a penchant for inventing useful objects. Their first meeting is hardly compatible but over time, as they slice brains and investigate the results of drugs on the human physique, Watson and Holmes are united against Lestrade, who desires to write the case off, believing it is simply solved, and spend no more time or expenses on it, and become friends. Holmes is convinced there's something far more devious behind these attacks than mere random serial killings.
When his client turns up in the morgue, Holmes is further assured the case cannot be so simply solved, and that Professor Moriarty (Vincent D'Onofrio) is behind it. His investigation leads him to beautiful Rebecca Doyle (Gabrielle Anwar), who has unknowingly been a pawn in a dangerous game of power and corruption. Holmes faces the worst of human nature, the endless cocaine syringe at the hand of an enemy, and his own dark side as he battles to unearth the truth in a world of darkness. Admittedly the storyline is a good one. Were it not for the dreadful inconsistencies in a youthful Holmes with the much older, settled, and skeptical cases of his counterpart, I would recommend it as a show of excellence in screen writing. The plot is not, as I'd originally feared, yet another case of matching Holmes against Jack the Ripper. Whitechapel does not even feature prominently in the case. The writing is clever, the acting quite good, and the soundtrack absolutely exquisite. James D'Arcy did not easily convince me at first. I spent thirty minutes trying to persuade myself that he was indeed Holmes, but eventually came to appreciate his performance. The most difficult thing to swallow was the precarious dislike between Holmes and Watson at first, but very rapidly I grew to like both.
The biggest -- and indeed most viable -- harp I have with this film is its pointless attempts to turn Holmes into a philanderer. Although writers have taken great pains to reproduce some of the novel's more eccentric habits in the young sleuth (his smoking habits, the deerstalker, his excellent swordplay skills, and his remarkable intelligence, along with his overly dramatic ego) they've completely overlooked two things of great importance: Holmes did not like and most frightfully distrusted women for their intellect, and he told Watson once quite plainly that he'd never been in love. Indeed in some adaptations this can be forgiven, such as in the case of Young Sherlock Holmes, because it's handled with as much mature dignity as possible without ever making him out to be emotionally distraught. This film could have been more believable had it included only Holmes' relationship with Rebecca and kept it to a professional interest rather than overt attraction. Viewers instead must furrow their brow in disbelief when an early scene finds him asleep in bed with a beautiful blonde he met at an evening gala just minutes before, and likewise giving in to the temptations of two flattering women at the flat while intoxicated.
Since this film was made for television they cannot be explicit, something I was grateful for in the long run since while this movie has many flaws, it's also quite enjoyable. Sexuality is alluded to rather than graphically shown, but we are treated to a sensual glimpse of a young woman removing her clothes. What makes this scene so confusing is that Holmes is intoxicated with absinthe at the time (a powerful liquor known to create hallucinations) and it never becomes clear if the woman and her companion were actually there or just a figment of his imagination. The camera avoids direct nudity but we do see her bare back and large amounts of cleavage. Holmes has a recurring nightmare and in its first instance wakes up beside a sleeping girl. After he becomes ill and is recovering from a cocaine overdose, Rebecca takes care of him. She crawls in bed beside him and they passionately kiss before the camera fades out. There's very mild innuendo on two occasions, and only three profanities.
What the production lacks by way of explicit sexuality comes in the form of graphic depictions of autopsies and drug content, which earned the DVD release an R-rating. Viewers are treated to the sound effects of Watson slicing into bodies in the police morgue (we briefly see him sawing into a man's skull) and the sight of him removing brains for further inspection. They are cut apart and lingered on by the camera as the duo discuss various possibilities. The inspector whips the sheet off a subject only to find his brain has been removed through a hole cut into his head. It's quite gruesome. A body in the morgue displays a hideous gash across its neck. Men are shot in a crossfire and minor characters are killed. More disconcerting is the aftermath of Holmes being kidnapped and forced to take heroin. He is tied down and a hypodermic forced into his arm on numerous occasions. Rebecca continues to give him lesser doses as he attempts to come out of it. Flashbacks show his brother Mycroft (Richard E. Grant) being given the same dosage, resulting in the loss of his ability to walk without assistance. Having it so violently forced on him doesn't provide good reasoning for why Holmes would seek to take it occasionally in later life, and the canon writings never imply that his intelligent brother ever indulged or is even a cripple.
The very best scenes are involved in either physical action or verbal intellect. Holmes handles a foil is beautiful artistry and the final battle in Big Ben, while being a candid throwback to The Great Mouse Detective, is quite enjoyable. Arguably the finest sequence is between Holmes and Mycroft as they dine and appraise people who are walking past. Watson's inventions also come in handy, replacing Holmes' sword stick with a cane that fires a single bullet. If only Holmes wasn't amoral, Sherlock would be a fantastic addition to any serious collection. For now it's worthwhile for older viewers capable of viewing autopsies without turning green, but only with remote in hand.