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Jeremy Brett Astonishing as Holmes,
This review is from: Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection [DVD] (DVD)
This re-released complete collection of "Sherlock Holmes" DVDs has been smartly re-packaged and now boasts subtitles, but there are still no extras of any kind; it's just the stories. The cleaned-up picture is indeed appreciably sharper and less muddied than in the earlier version, but the set as a whole is not radically different from that released in the 1990s. However, if you've yet to see these adaptations, don't let the paucity of improvements dissuade you from buying them because, for the most part, they're absolute crackers. The complete set comprises Adventures 1 and 2, Return, Casebook and Memoirs as well as the feature length films, and I'd agree with the widely-held view that the first two series were the best. David Burke is perfectly cast as the genial, unassuming Watson, who despite his state of continual perplexity is neither the oaf nor the dimwit that other actors played him as. Much has been written about Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Holmes, the vast majority of it favourable, though with some criticism levelled at the later 90s episodes. But in "Adventures", Brett is simply astonishing. Physically ideally suited for the part, he inhabits and commands the world of 221B to such a degree that you can scarcely imagine him playing or even being anyone else. With his slicked-back dark hair, sonorous voice and extraordinary razor-sharp face, Brett combined Holmes' intelligence and logic with all the nuances of neurosis, arrogance, humour, integrity and even hints of vulnerability and sexuality to create the most compelling screen characterisation to date.
The two "Adventures" series include some of Doyle's most intriguing stories, like "The Naval Treaty" and "The Resident Patient". But even in the less imaginative cases such as that of "The Copper Beeches", the direction, acting and particularly the attention to detail is so accomplished that the story instantly comes to life. What a beguiling moment it is when Holmes, possibly aroused by a flicker of desire as well as by mere curiosity, reaches out and briefly touches Natasha Richardson's hair. And it is a joy to see his civility towards Richardson finally turning to exasperation as she makes the cardinal error of extending her consultation beyond the limits of his patience. "The Blue Carbuncle" features Holmes at his most charming, and Brett at his most subtle and versatile. Rudely awoken by Mrs. Hudson, he grasps for his first cigarette of the day before dealing with the morning's problematic visitor in so benevolent and friendly a manner he seems to have metamorphosed into Watson. But such cordiality contrasts vividly with his staccato bursts of energy and coldly furious temper at the episode's end. "The Final Problem", originally intended as Doyle's last story, allows us fully to perceive the depth of friendship between Watson and Holmes. Such is its sense of devastating loss that it took me days to recover from watching it.
However, despite their many excellences, none of these episodes are perfect. The standard of acting, other than that of the principals, is variable to say the least, with some decidedly dodgy accents from the working-class characters and several of the bit players hamming it up like nobody's business. To me this seems needless and a shame, and quite why it was allowed or even encouraged is not entirely clear. Perhaps the producers were unwilling to risk making the tone of the series too dark or overly serious.
In the three subsequent series, made in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the quality is definitely more patchy. Some stories that I loved when I read them, such as "The Musgrave Ritual" and "The Problem of Thor Bridge" are solidly and satisfyingly reproduced; others like "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" and "The Red Circle" are little more than time-passers. But given the degree of inventiveness required to produce such a large number of widely varying tales, this inconsistency is perhaps inevitable.
Of the five feature length episodes, the third, "The Master Blackmailer" is a pretty gloomy affair, but is cheered up by the remarkable sight of Holmes, a complete amateur in romantic liaisons, actually kissing a young woman. Needless to say, he is quite unable to deal with the feelings such an act engenders (although Brett, after so many years of playing Holmes, probably enjoyed it himself). The second film, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is the best. The intrigue and melodrama of the plot is both balanced and enhanced by the use of locations and by the fact that Brett is off-screen for long stretches, allowing Edward Hardwicke, who became Watson after Burke left to join the RSC, to do some (largely unsuccessful!) detective work of his own. It is also very and unexpectedly funny in places, the humour deriving from the ascetic Holmes' aversion to being touched and his attitude to food. Hardwicke proved an appealing Watson, lacking some of the warmth of Burke's portrayal but creating an interpretation of greater maturity and gravitas. The fourth two-hour film, "The Last Vampyre", is the worst of the bunch, with its blood and thunder approach and some of the acting bordering on hysteria. It's very sad too, in these late episodes, to see Brett looking so ill.
To all those Conan Doyle and Jeremy Brett fans who have yet to buy this collection - treat yourself to this new and improved set. It is both a record of the most famous detective stories of all time and incontrovertible evidence of Brett's prodigious and singular talents.