I didn't really like this one. Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes stories are normally admirable and this one certainly seems to cover all the bases, but unfortunately it's also a bit boring. Shame. I'd been expecting better.
The problem lies in the character work, including the two leads. Firstly, Sherlock.
Normally I admire Brett's performance as Holmes, which pretty much stands alone in my experience. Never have I seen anyone work so hard at creating Sherlock Holmes from scratch, although I haven't yet seen Vasili Livanov in the 1980s Russian adaptations. It's a complete transformation and rather astonishing. Unfortunately I've occasionally known this characterisation to get in the way of his line delivery, with Holmes's offhandedness causing him to throw away dialogue. Sometimes they're important lines too. I can still enjoy the physicality of his performance, but on a visual level he doesn't even look right. He's too fat. Note the way he wears a scarf to hide his neck. Sadly the truth is that by now he was ill and bloated by drugs, suffering both from liver problems and depression after the death of his wife.
The other lead is Edward Hardwicke, who on the evidence so far is the worst Watson I've seen in quite a while. The secondary problem is that he's true to the books, i.e. boring. I liked him talking shop with Dr Mortimer. I also enjoyed the funny bit when Holmes is trying to feed him home-made stew, which feels improvised. However otherwise he has no personality, no presence and can't always even manage a decent reaction shot. "You'd make a very civil gooseberry." Uh, right. He's not helped by the screenplay downplaying him as much as possible, but I can't say that the episode would have improved had he had a bigger role.
In fact apart from Jeremy Brett and his mannerisms, the entire cast could be described as understated. This adaptation is faithful to the novel in a bad way. Conan Doyle's original doesn't have memorable characterisation and was never one of my favourites as a child thanks to that yawning Holmes-less chasm in the middle. Guess what? I felt the same here too. K.T. Donaldson is solid but fairly bland as Sir Henry Baskerville, if you can overlook his accent taking ten-hour plane flights. I'd have assumed that was deliberate if this series hadn't made something of a habit of klutzing with Americans. The Barrymores aren't creepy or even particularly suspicious. Then the Stapledons hardly even appear. He's a nonentity and she's doing her best with very little material, although I'd have to quibble with the claim that she's supposedly "very handsome".
Take Frankland, for example. In all other adaptations of this story, he's wonderful. He's largely irrelevant to the plot, but he's a golden opportunity for an old character actor to be eccentric. Can hardly go wrong, can you? Well, as they demonstrate here, you can indeed. He's as underplayed as everyone else, becoming a throwaway character we're not even meant to find endearing. The script doesn't like him and we're not meant to either. Incidentally he's played by Bernard Horsfall, hidden behind a beard that will make him unrecognisable to anyone who knows him from Doctor Who.
Fortunately there are bright spots. Elizabeth Spender does fine as Laura Lyons, but most remarkable is Alistair Duncan as Dr Mortimer. He rescues the show with his performance as a sub-autistic obsessive who can't shut up about skulls and somehow makes himself look like the main suspect. It's a bravura performance, unlike anything I've ever seen done with the part before. It's practically a twist when he turns out to have been innocent after all. I'd give most of the credit for that to the actor, although the script does carefully have him show up when dramatic irony would require the as yet undetected villain to be present.
Is it a good script? If we generously overlook the flaw of its being written by T.R. Bowen, but we could concede that it's at least efficient. I was disappointed not to see a dramatisation of the 17th century legend, but I admired details like their handling of Holmes sending Watson to Dartmoor instead of going himself. That bit can be tricky. Unlike the 1968 BBC version
they also don't screw up the scene where Stapledon loses it on seeing his 'sister' getting intimate with Sir Henry, managing not to make him look Oedipal. The romance itself is okay even if the loving couple get almost no scenes together, which is a pleasant surprise in a Hound of the Baskervilles adaptation.
There are a couple of larger additions I'm less keen on, though. I don't get the point of all that business showing Holmes on trains and in London. It achieves nothing. Presumably it's meant to be a red herring, put there to make us doubt our assumptions, but for those of us who know the story (i.e. everyone) it's a "What the hell?" I'm not sure if it even makes sense. I've seen it suggested that those scenes are merely ensuring that Holmes never stays offscreen for too long, but to me it smacks of a lack of faith in your story.
The other addition is a Frankenstein scar on Seldon's forehead. He's been lobotomised. This is interesting and I admire its ingenuity, but I also disagree with it. It makes the story less dangerous. An escaped convict on the moors is scary. An escaped lobotomised man-child is lame. It's also bad history, the implication being that Victorian doctors would lobotomise the criminally insane whereas in fact it was a strictly 20th century treatment. The 1930s to the 1950s. It's not even the right kind of scar.
A good portion of the blame must of course go to the director, but no praise could be too much for his director of photography. Despite everything this is still a perfectly watchable adaptation, redeemed in particular by looking gorgeous. It's beautifully shot. Absolutely stunning, better than most feature films. I'd go so far as to describe it as the best-looking adaptation of this story that I own, including Rathbone's. No expense can have been spared in the production, which found a wonderful Baskerville Hall and then filmed the hell out of it. This even plays into the story, in that one's reminded constantly of how much money's at stake in Holmes's struggle for Sir Henry's life.
The director makes one bold decision. In London we get a clear look at Stapledon following Sir Henry! It's out in the open and I was expecting later to be able to identify him immediately, false beard or no, but somehow it doesn't work that way. I was impressed by that. However that's only a detail, whereas the feeble ending is unforgivable. After the hound's death, things kind of meander on until they peter out instead of reaching a climax. The finale's lack of urgency makes Stapledon look like an idiot for letting himself get caught in the quicksand. Theoretically he's fleeing for his life from Sherlock Holmes. In practice it looks like nothing of the kind. Wow, that was bad.
Oh, and the hound's green. Phosphorus. That surprised me too.
I've been harsh on this thing and I suppose I should give the other side of the coin too. It's a solid high-quality adaptation. It's not my favourite, but there will have been many worse. I like the horror tone at the beginning and the scenes in 221B Baker Street. I also woke up a bit when Holmes turned up on the moor, although it turned out to be something of a false dawn.
This thing feels slow. It's astonishingly cinematic, which is great news for the director of photography but a disappointment if you admired the talkiness of the 1968 BBC version
. Paradoxically that seemed to move faster. Weird. This version doesn't have a sense of danger while the underwritten Barrymores make it disappointing on a detective level, although Dr Mortimer eventually brings it back up in that department. I don't know if I'd call it bad, mind you. Even without its jaw-dropping visuals, it's still okay. I watched it painlessly enough. It's still one of the weaker Brett adaptations, though.