Holmes: Richard Roxburgh
Watson: Ian Hart
Richard Roxburgh as Sherlock Holmes
At the risk of starting this review on a bad note, I must start by stating that Richard Roxburgh makes for a terrible Holmes. It is not the blonde hair (Cushing won me over, after all), nor is it the misplaced accent (Roxburgh has a very difficult time hiding the fact that he is Australian): in fact, there is not a distinct characteristic which makes Roxburgh’s Holmes a bad Holmes. He simply wasn’t meant to play the role. Holmes, despite his aloofness, and despite his misanthropy, is still a likeable character. Roxburgh’s Holmes is not. He is dull and uninteresting, vain and condescending, boorish and crass — the list goes on. There are a lot of problems with this adaptation, but Roxburgh’s Holmes is perhaps its largest stumbling block.
Ian Hart as Doctor Watson
Perhaps in commiseration with Roxburgh’s Holmes, Ian Hart’s Watson is also significantly lacking. He is not a terrible Watson, but he is not a particularly good Watson either. Part of this steams from his appearance (who ever heard of a scrawny Watson?), but there is also something decidedly off about Hart’s portrayal of Watson. The character doesn’t ring true. It is only rarely that Hart seems to nail the essence that is Watson; the rest of the time the character falling flat. It is quite hard to tell if this was the fault of the actor, or the script, but having seen Hart in Silk Stockings, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest it is the actor. While Hart does manage to portray Watson’s strength and courage, he completely misses Watson’s compassion and warmth. Without these last two traits, Watson is far from recognizable.
Usually, I begin a review on a positive note, before jumping into my quibbles, but with this particular film, the quibbles were so numerous they required immediate attention. As these reviews are meant to give the perspective of a student of subtext, I want to first begin with the slash.
Or lack thereof.
Throughout this film, it is painfully apparent that Holmes and Watson do not like one another. In fact, they rather seem to hate one another. I’m not even sure they’re actually friends. They come across more as colleagues, with Watson secretly plotting Holmes’ death, and Holmes plotting how he can best use Watson to his advantage without completely pissing Watson off. In fact, there were times when I honestly expected Watson to pull out his service revolver and shoot Holmes dead. “Should have done that years ago,” he’d say.
Not that I blame Watson. As mentioned above, Roxburgh’s Holmes is not likeable. I spent the better part of the film contemplating his death.
This is not, of course, to say that the film was lacking in slash. It existed in abundance, just not between Holmes and Watson. Watson and Sir Henry, on the other hand….
Still, slash aside, the core of these stories has always been Holmes and Watson’s unending friendship. This film not only neglected to highlight this, it seems to have forgotten it existed altogether. And to think the film opened on such a promising note (I speak, of course, of a the half naked H/W Turkish bath scene). It really is a pity.
Under most circumstances, I can ignore the absence of subtext in favour of a film’s other qualities. What I can’t ignore, however, is the brutalization of a character. I have commented above on the deplorableness of Roxburgh’s Holmes, but here I want to touch on the writing of Holmes (in addition to a poorly cast Holmes, this film also gives us a poorly written Holmes). Holmes is, in fact, so out of character at times that it is hard to reconcile the character onscreen with the Great Detective we know and love. A few examples:
Apparently, Holmes has taken to injecting cocaine as a means of stimulating his deductive skills, thereby helping him to solve the case. Holmes of Canon would have never used (or needed) cocaine during a case. His 7% solution was reserved exclusively for alleviating boredom in between cases.
Then there is Holmes’ vulgarity. Gone is the witticism and deductive genius that first made Sherlock Holmes a household name. In its place we have Holmes insulting Watson (don’t be an idiot, Watson), slamming doors in Watson’s face, and in general behaving less like a gentleman and more like a common street brawler.
If Holmes’ character assassination isn’t bad enough, there are the numerous Canon deviations, which, while not all terrible (some were quite delightful), they did distract from an already bad retelling, making the story more long and drawn out than was otherwise necessary. It was hard, too, to reconcile the need for a lot of these changes (the minute changes to the Hugo backstory, comes to mind, for it served absolutely no purpose). I have no problem with Canon deviations, but they should always have some logical purpose behind them. Taking away Dr. Mortimer’s dog and giving him a wife, for example, did nothing to further the story (save to create a medium character, so that the writers could add a completely unnecessary, and overly dramatic, seance scene — a testament, I know, to the Rathbone films, but I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now).
Finally, there is the Hound. In the age of CGI, I cannot even begin to understand why someone, somewhere, couldn’t have created a better Hound. I wanted to feel terror at spotting the Hound. Instead I was too distracted by the obvious failings of the CGI department to feel anything but disappointment.
Let me say that again. Richard E. Grant’s Stapleton is the only reason this film earns a full two pipes. Not only did Grant’s portrayal of the character elevate this film from ho-hum to worth renting, but he gives what I consider to be the best performance of Stapleton I have ever seen. The canon deviations surrounding this character, too, were brilliant. Making him the amateur archaeologist provided an interesting twist, while focusing on his abusive nature towards his wife (whom he kills in the end!) added an aura of darkness that was perfectly fitting for the story. Truly, Grant’s portrayal of a psychotic and villainous Stapleton is award-worthy. What I wouldn’t give to see him play Sherlock Holmes.
Aside from Stapleton, it should also be noted that this is a very well put together version of Hound. It is obvious that the production did not suffer from any budget restrictions. The costumes are stunning, the setting/sets are exceptionally well done, and the cinematography breathtaking. All things considered, this is a very pretty version of Hound. Sadly, it’s not enough to save the film from its other failings.
Overall, the film isn’t terrible (it does have some redeeming qualities), but it certainly isn’t good, either. It’s mediocre. It does manage to earn its two pipes (and were it not for Grant’s performance, I’d be hard pressed to give it one), but only just barely. I’d recommend watching it if you haven’t anything better to do, but really, if you miss it, you’re not missing much. If, however, you secretly believe that Holmes and Watson hate one another (with a vengeance) than this might just be the film for you.