SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ It's that time of year again: THE RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in London! On now.. See you there!

Monday, 13 January 2014

'Sherlock' ~ SERIES 3// Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in a blistering example of 'Event TV' . . ."Get me some morphine from your kitchen, Mrs Hudson - I've run out!"

This review contains plot spoilers ~ watch before reading!

I may have been a little too cynical about SHERLOCK - the BBC's updating of Conan Doyle's adventures of a man called Holmes into what could often be an overly-stylised series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson respectively - but the series was launched in 2010, and it's still going strong. Series Three ended last night on a real high.

I thought the series in the past had a tendency to appear too arch and obvious; all silly plays on original story titles, intricate riffs and self-stylising of classic storylines and characters into a forced modern updating (not a natural time shift, like Rathbone's 1940's-shot movie series to a Second World War setting mostly seemed, even when wallowing in wartime propaganda, which it did often). And anyway, for me, the very best wearer of the deerstalker was Jeremy Brett in the 80s and 90s Granada TV series - this man lived and literally died the role with pathos, effortless cool and real passion, and will never be bettered. But . . .
I've really enjoyed this latest series of SHERLOCK; it seems to have developed a life of its own at last - and does its own thing without trying too hard. It's wild and flamboyant and crazy at times, and the chemistry natural. It seems to have developed a heart and soul and has settled into being a series inspired by the stories of Sherlock Holmes without being slavishly ruled by them. It's also quite respectful.

The silly banter and prickly exchanges between Holmes and Watson, while also at times being serious and dark (even Watson has a darkness, a point deliciously explored in the series finale: the blisteringly good episode - 'His Final Vow') has been exquisite across the three adventures of this all too brief run.

The best man's wedding speech from Holmes in the second adventure: 'The Sign of Three', though often hilarious and also accurate for all those who have been in that same rocky boat, was perhaps a temporary blip when it dragged on a little too long and with too much undying declarations of buddy love all round. Though actually, considering the following episode's magnificently mean payoff, it was possibly also a stroke of genius; a false sense of familiarity and forced fun (and undoubtedly a certain mawkishness) making the terrible toppling of faith between friends in the final fling of 'His Last Vow' (from the new Mrs Watson no less) even more shocking and undeniably awful - and unable to be guessed.

There's a nifty comment from Holmes' adversary at the end of 'His Last Vow' in which the idea of an already developing cosy sleuthing team of 'detective, best friend and best friend's wife' post-current case solving, is mocked; Sherlock is told this isn't going to happen. There is, perhaps, a certain cynicism from the creators of the show here, second guessing what the audience is already thinking it wants to see: Holmes, Watson, Mary - a new dynamic for Series 4, but such cosiness is swiftly, and cruelly, rejected. Only for a twist at the end of this tale, to reignite the idea.

Mary reveals - only what you need to know!
Amanda Abbington as Mrs Watson/ Mary Morstan turned from flirty, tough-but sweet, girl-about-city in her first appearance in the series opener 'The Empty Hearse' (in which Sherlock returns from the dead, plays controlling god to a furious Watson, and defuses a bomb under the Houses of Parliament as effective symbolism for deceit and friendship being renewed under threat of implosion) to a dangerously sensual and sly, devious, eternally unknowable and untrustworthy woman (though excitingly so) as Season Three of Sherlock progressed to the last gasp moments.

God it was sexy; this newly revealed Mary Morstan showing her true colours in the final act. No wonder Watson threw her secret files in the fire and carried on loving this woman with only the threat of sometimes having a moan at her; deciding not to read the details of her mostly murderous past (as a hitgirl, probably, though other variations are hinted at being enjoyed).

Watson looks for answers. . .
The Watson of SHERLOCK Series Three is undeniably a victim; both best friend and new wife play him like an idiot, but he's a victim, all the same, for 'everyman' - and he never once looks like a fool. In fact, of all the cast, it's Watson who comes across as the most bloody angry and even dangerous to know.

Mycroft plays it straight . . .
Mark Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes has also stepped up to the rebooted series agenda with sly assurance (well, he is the co-creator, along with Doctor Who's Steven Moffat, so he can do what he bloody well wants!) and has abandoned the stuffy important fool of earlier episodes. He's still a stuffy important fool, but harder edged now; more of a stabbing-you-in-the-back in the name of Queen and Country, prissy middle-aged bastard, with unexpected concern, some love, and maybe even fear of his more famous brother that we haven't really seen before.

Evil has never been more polite . . .
And then, for the final episode, an extra treat: ice cold Lars Mikkelsen as uber-creep, techno-sneery, criminal (on the quiet) media supremo and all round important person - both string puller and cutter; Charles Augustus Magnussen. While clearly not based on any real person called Rupert or Robert in the real world (clearly - ok?), Magnussen was a delicious update of the classic Holmes adversary Charles Augustus Milverton; the master blackmailer from the short story 'The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton'.
This superb villain's welcome demise in the final minutes of 'His Last Bow' was unpredictable and a total shock to the system. The character of Milverton's demise in the original Conan Doyle short story had the master blackmailer shot by a wronged woman (one of his blackmail victims) and this moment is referenced in the updated script here from Moffat mid-episode; but it comes with a twist - Holmes stops the assassination attempt on Magnussen, only to find himself on the receiving end of the bullet intended for his adversary.

Conan Doyle based the character of Milverton on a real life blackmailer well known at the time - Charles Augustus Howell, who met a murderous end, just like his fictional twin, if less of a clean kill; Howell's throat was slit and a mysterious single coin placed in his mouth. Truth always being stranger than fiction . .

And what of the return of Cumberbatch and Freeman to their now familiar roles in the Sherlock universe? Significant major film roles for both in the likes of Star Trek and The Hobbit, I think have added some extra wattage and conviction (though they've always been excellent anyway) for their most recent portrayals of Holmes and Watson.

But something has changed. And at first I couldn't figure out what. Then I realised: no longer are these two assuredly charismatic actors being seen as 'Cumberbatch and Freeman doing Holmes and Watson'. They are now 'Holmes and Watson (as played by Cumberbatch and Freeman)' - without the baggage of the past, or references to 'that guy from The Office'! I don't even see Cumberbatch's portrayal anymore as being a pretender to that of Brett or Rathbone - or even Peter Cushing (who starred in the previous long-running BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes in the 60s). Cumberbatch's Sherlock is spirited enough to not need to be compared to any other.

A unique identity has been forged then: on the night of the Season Three finale, Cumberbatch suddenly became an essential Sherlock. For me, it took a couple of series to get to this point, though previous episodes have always been enjoyable; often inspired. For many other fans out there less picky; I know the full revelation came right at the start: from the very first episode. They knew how good this Sherlock was.

More morphine Mrs Hudson!

One last mention to a supporting player in the new Sherlock universe who we couldn't possibly leave out of any review: Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson - boosted in her familiar role by a rather affectionate mean twist of turning this once sweet, twitchy and cosy character into a batty old lady with a 'bad boy' past; once helping out run a drugs cartel when not stripping in local clubs: "You've been searching on YouTube again, haven't you?" she accuses Holmes, when he mentions the stripping bit in front of everyone. Who cares if it's not canon - it's a great idea! And then perhaps the best exchange of the series:
Holmes (to Mrs Hudson): "Get me some morphine from your kitchen, I've run out."
Mrs Hudson: "I don't have any morphine!"
Holmes: "Then what exactly is the point of you?"
Last night's blistering finale of Season Three of SHERLOCK had me on the literal edge of my tatty old sofa; it was dark and funny and threatening (the episode, not the sofa). I feared for lives throughout; I felt strongly about love and loss - and lies from the ones you love. I felt this was real life at last, not a series written by a few good gentlemen being clever about how many times they've read Conan Doyle (as many of us Holmes fanatics have; many times).

This final episode; 'His Last Vow', was - purely and simply - 'EVENT TV'. The kind that came with numerous stunning twists in the swish of a Victorian tailcoat - or big, black, cool-collared overcoat that's come to define the modern era Holmes as much as the deerstalker once did with Rathbone and occasionally Brett (although Brett's fabulous long black scarf he once wore, to me remains his most iconic sartorial moment).

Jeremy Brett as Holmes, with scarf!

There's a defining moment in the closing minutes of 'His Last Bow'. Sherlock has taken the riskiest solution to a case of all - and taken the law into his own hands. He now stands on the balcony of Magnussen's opulent high-tech home; his adversary lying dead in front of him, killed by a single shot to the head. The executioner is Sherlock; execution of an undefeatable adversary being the only option left to him should he wish to protect the only people in his life he has come to care about (Watson and Mary) from Magnussen's relentless and continuing threat of blackmail and exposure of Mary's crimes. They were all about to become puppets for the rest of that man's life - Holmes decides to make that life a short one.

As police helicopters swarm towards the house and armed police surround Sherlock, the man raises his hands in surrender - and in the glare of all the flashlights and laser sights pointing his way we get a neat camera trick; a sudden glimpse of a young boy with tussled hair standing on the balcony with arms raised, instead of the adult Sherlock we expected; a terrified look on his wide-eyed face - a boy that knows he's done something very naughty  indeed; not just knock over a vase or have a smoke with Mycroft when their mum isn't looking. Not this time. 

It's a wonderfully simple, poignant - quite astonishingly brave, idea to have Sherlock presented literally as the  little boy that never grew up; the Peter Pan of TV detectives. It could also be a self-penned comment on both Gatiss and Moffat's almost childlike enthusiasm for the character - and the series itself.

Bravo then to the terrific cast of the BBC's SHERLOCK and to the creators and writers involved in this third and best series yet - long may it carry on. You've converted the sceptic in me you know. You've made me; manipulated me - into your puppet and fool. You would make a man by the name of Charles Augustus (Milverton) Magnussen very proud.

Words ~ Mark Gordon Palmer
'SHERLOCK' images: © BBC/ 2014
Jeremy Brett image ©Granada TV

No comments:

Post a Comment