It's awful. It's absolutely dire, one of the most frustrating adaptations of anything I've ever seen. I writhed, I clock-watched and I yearned for the fast-forward button. I knew the feature-length episodes of Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes were said to be bad, but I never dreamed they'd plunge to these depths. At least the two in Series 2
had been based on actual novels, but the three in Series 3
are bloated up short stories. No, really. Furthermore the appalling possibility exists that the production team were pleased with the results and from this got the inspiration to start mucking about in Series 4
On the upside, this is a much more faithful adaptation than the other two Series 3
movies, merely expanding upon the original rather than trying to wrench it into something entirely different. Length is the only real problem, although what a problem that is! There's an excellent episode buried in here. You could even dig it out with some editing. Note in particular that the original story moves like a bullet. Holmes knows who they're up against from the beginning and can give Watson all the background on page one. Next comes a confrontation at 221B Baker Street, after which Holmes hits the ground running by going undercover, getting himself engaged and eventually becoming a burglar. Unfortunately the case is solved by deus ex machina as our heroes merely watch, but for once that hardly matters. This isn't one of Holmes's more intellectually challenging problems, but instead makes him look like the most dynamic man in London.
Here, not so much. They haven't expanded Holmes's role at all. He still does exactly the same things he did when the story was only eleven pages long and so is made to look passive, in a story which doesn't even give him anything to think about. He's rubbish, although he has his moments. His scenes with his fiancee in particular are startling, taking Brett's Holmes's characterisation to a place we wouldn't have believed from Rathbone or even perhaps Cushing. Maybe he's latently gay and maybe he isn't, but here he's made out to be entirely asexual. "Gi'us a kiss." "I don't know how." "Poor boy." Nevertheless such diversions aside, this is a story with an ineffectual hero and a deus ex machina. At one point Holmes even states that two of the villain's victims are in France... and then never goes to visit them or even mentions them again. Ah yes, France. Might as well have been on the moon, eh?
No, this adaptation is much more interested in its villain. It's based on the Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, although you'll notice that the production team changed the title. Mr Milverton is an unimpressive little chap who makes his living by blackmail. We see his victims. We see them plead. We see their lives destroyed, with one even committing suicide. An army officer is threatened with having his letters to his gay lover sent to his fiancee, for example. Milverton's certainly made to look like a thoroughly nasty piece of work, but every millisecond of it is predictable. His victims are losers who don't do anything. You don't actively wish them harm, but it never occurs to you that any of them might be able to strike back at Milverton in any way.
The one memorable actor is Robert Hardy as Milverton. These 102 minutes are all about him and he makes the most of that. Meanwhile Colin Jeavons gets a brief scene to underwhelm as Lestrade, while Hardwicke goes out of his way to avoid doing anything of interest. That's his Watson, yes, but the upshot is that potentially entertaining scenes fall flat. I can see the choices he's making. I just don't like them. Note his reactions in the scene where Holmes tells him about his engagement, followed by "you like this weather?" His role here is to be the moral pillar, outraged by Milverton and alarmed by Holmes. The result is to make him a prig regarding the burglary, although in fairness they did manage to get a laugh out of that. "I see you have a natural turn for this sort of thing." "I wonder where I learned it."
I also liked Brett's scenes with Mrs Hudson, but I was underwhelmed by the confrontation with which Conan Doyle kicked off his story. By that point the adaptation has already shown us everything so laboriously that the scene has little new to add.
The production values are sumptuous, of course. I hardly need to say that, do I? The lakeside scene looks like a painting, the country houses are divine and Robert Hardy is skin-crawlingly perfect in the central role. In every way but one, I can hardly imagine a better adaptation of this story.
After getting up one Saturday at 5am I'd been planning to watch two of these feature-length episodes, but after this I couldn't face another. In fact if I hadn't been going to write this review, I'd have been fast-forwarding through the entire second half or else just stopping altogether. I still remember the shock I felt on realising at the 45 minute mark that we still weren't halfway through. Then at the end, THEY MISS OUT A GOOD BIT! Conan Doyle writes a comedy scene in which Lestrade turns up and unknowingly gives voice to what we're all thinking, i.e. "Everyone's going to think Holmes did it." It's a great scene. It's funny. It makes me laugh. It's nowhere to be found in this adaptation. Eh?
If they had to expand this story to this length, they should have Rathboned it up a bit. No, actually they should have given up on the whole idea of feature-length episodes.