Misc Review: Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle…

June 7th, 2009 | Tags: , ,

Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (aka Murder Rooms)

Category: Docu-drama
Dr. Bell: Ian Richardson
Mr. Doyle: Robin Laing
Year: 2001
Case: Original

Half documentary, half film, The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes focuses its attention on Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This series examines Doyle’s relationship with Joseph Bell, whose ability to solve crimes and baffle the police seem oddly familiar. Hypothesizing that many of Holmes’ cases were borrowed from actual crimes investigated by Bell, the series follows young Doyle as he learns the ropes from the ‘original’ Sherlock Holmes. In this series, the line between fiction and fact are quite blurred, Doyle equal parts historical figure and original character.

Delightful Elements

The Story:

As someone who plays The Game (i.e. ignores Doyle in favour of Holmes and Watson), I must first confess that my knowledge of ACD is sadly lacking. I am not intimately familiar with his biography, and so, I cannot comment on which elements of this film were based on fact, and which were pure fiction. I can, however, say that the story itself (plot, if you will) is quite compelling. The thought that perhaps Holmes was inspired by one of Doyle’s teachers is quite compelling. The events surrounding Doyle’s involvement, and their connection to later stories, is simply genius (indeed, at one point Bell investigates the sending of two severed ears in a cardboard box, at another, Doyle requests that Bell use his watch as a base for deduction, both eerily familiar events).

More than merely keeping the viewers attention, the story is also quite gripping. Overlying a series of cases, there runs a single thread, connecting a series of murders. It is the mystery of these murders, and its eventual solution, that act to engage the viewer. Seeing how this case, and its end result, might have influenced Doyle is merely icing on the cake. Bonus points are given for pitting science (Doyle and Bell) against religion (the murderer).

The Atmosphere:

I am, I confess, a sucker for atmospheres. Give me meticulously researched costumes, stunning sets, and historically accurate plots and I am, quite literally, in heaven. Dark Beginnings has this in spades. Every detail has been considered, making this docu-film one of the most visually stunning Sherlock Holmes adaptations I have ever seen.

Ian Richardson as Dr. Bell:

While I know next to nothing of Dr. Bell (save his existence and his role in influencing the creation of Sherlock Holmes) Ian Richardson is magnetic on screen. Few actors have what I consider true charisma, so it is quite a treat to watch one who has it in abundance. Richardson steals every scene he is in. His presence is all consuming; his performance, unforgettable.

Robin Laing as Mr. Doyle:

I will confess, it is quite awkward studying Doyle as though he were a character. I felt somewhat intrusive, a sensation that does not exist with literary characters. Still, it was quite fascinating to see Laing’s interpretation of Doyle (though whether it was an accurate one is beyond my comprehension). Laing is quite charming in this film, and while he does not possess the presence owned by Richardson, he manages to hold his own (in Richardson’s presence, too, no less, which is quite remarkable). Overall, the role was admirably cast.

Less Delightful Elements

Sub-plot Quibble:

In the film, there is a running subplot (which ties into the main plot) in which several women are attending the medical university, much to the chagrin of several male students and professors. The story is set in Edinburgh, and we can presume it is set before the publication of Doyle’s first novel/story. Presumably, this subplot borrows from the infamous Edinburgh Seven (seven woman who fought and won the right to attend specialized medical classes in 1869). From 1869 to 1873 women were allowed to attend classes, but, in 1873 they lost a legal challenge, keeping them away from the school. Edinburgh university would not open its doors to women again until 1892. Here lies the problem. Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh between 1876 and 1881, a time when no women had been admitted. A small quibble, perhaps (and maybe someone can prove me wrong?) but enough that it was quite jarring.

Additionally, the story would have been dramatically improved had the writers done away with the Doyle-lead female love story. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good romance, but that it felt misplaced.

Some Confusion:

The film blurs the line between fact and fiction, and they do it in such a way as to suggest that the entire premise might be fact. This is misleading, and often confusing, and at times down-right frustrating. I suspect this is the problem with attempting to use a historical character as the lead in a fictional film.


Overall, Dark Beginnings is actually quite good. It’s visually stunning, well crafted, engaging, intelligent, and provides interesting insight and speculation on Arthur Doyle. Sadly, I was often too distracted by the above quibbles to pay attention to what was an otherwise fantastic story. Dark Beginnings earns a mere three out of five pipes.

  1. Christina
    December 11th, 2009 at 19:22
    Quote | #1

    It’s always such a pleasure to watch something Holmes-related and then check back if you’ve wrote a review :).
    I must confess, I really loved Dark Beginnings, as well as the other 4 Murder Room movies (with Charles Edwards as Doyle). David Pirie, who wrote the first two Murder Rooms, also wrote the script for the TV movie “The Strange Case of Sherlock Holmes & Arthur Conan Doyle”, which isn’t as good (in my opinion), but certainly worth watching.
    You know, movies like this really make me realize how much I love the Sherlock Holmes stories (or Holmes and Watson, as characters): I was very nearly moved to tears at the beginning of Dark Beginnings (the beautiful, sad music and the waterfalls…) and at the end (when, out of nowhere, the Paget illustration of the Final Problem appears; this picture always makes me feel that way).
    Additionally, I have to agree with you on the atmosphere, especially the costumes (I collect Victorian clothes, and am particularly fond of frock coats, which I can actually wear without looking too stupid) – very, very well researched and done! The whole pacing, dialogue and acting is much better than in most (or maybe all) modern Sherlock Holmes movies, in my opinion.
    If you haven’t already, you must watch the other 4 Murder Rooms, they have loads of connections to the Sherlock Holmes stories (the giant rat of Sumatra comes to mind) and to lesser known aspects of Doyles’ biography as well!

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