The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
- Reviewed by: Mel Valentin
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Current Rating 9.5/10 | 6 Votes
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opens with a present-day prologue (present day meaning 1970), with a newly unearthed, sealed box of papers retrieved from a storage facility. The papers belong to Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely), written during his long friendship with Sherlock Holmes. The papers, in fact, contain several unpublished cases. Watson’s voice-over narration sends us into the late 19th century.
In the first episode or case, Holmes rejects one case (involving a family of circus acrobats) and is pulled into another, involving a Russian ballerina. With the first episode, Wilder and his co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond, seek to de-mythologize Holmes, and subsequently humanize Holmes by giving him an emotional life and personal flaws (e.g., his cocaine addiction, mentioned in Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories and briefly, in the first Basil Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes film, but otherwise ignored in subsequent films). Holmes’ dry, droll sense of humor is everywhere evident, including gentle criticisms aimed at Watson’s treatment of Holmes’ skills and talents in nearly superhuman terms (Watson’s literary imagination has added several inches to his actual height, and transformed Holmes from a talented, if amateur, violinist to a concert-ready virtuoso). Holmes, it seems, isn’t above voicing his displeasure with social functions (he hates the ballet).
Cajoled by Watson, Holmes finally agrees to attend a performance by a Russian ballet company, fully aware that the expensive tickets come with strings attached. The “strings” are personified in the form of a temperamental Russian ballet dancer, Madame Petrovna (Tamara Toumanova). In a deft bit of comedy, Holmes uses his verbal skills to deflect her amorous intentions. He does, by slyly suggesting that his longtime relationship with Watson is more than a mere friendship. As word of their relationship spreads, Watson’s simultaneous gallivanting with a group of beautiful ballerinas goes awry when, one by one, male ballet dancers replace the ballerinas.
Watson’s drunken confrontation with Holmes later that night perfectly segues into the next episode. As Watson remonstrates Holmes for lying about their relationship (and the injury to Watson’s reputation, presumably as a ladies’ man), Watson begins to home in on Holmes relationships with women. The ambiguity of Holmes’ response is only answered in the next episode involving a beautiful woman with amnesia, Gabrielle Valladon (Geneviève Page). Gabriele’s incomplete memories lead Holmes and Watson on a search for her missing husband, a Belgian engineer. Their search for the missing husband, with Holmes growing increasingly fascinated with the enigmatic Gabrielle, leads Holmes, Watson, and Gabrielle to Scotland and a confrontation with the Loch Ness Monster.
Along the way, Holmes, Watson, and Gabrielle encounter vertically challenged circus acrobats, Trappist monks, dead canaries, corpses buried in unmarked graves, Scottish castles, and even Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft (Christopher Lee), who warns Sherlock Holmes off the case, citing national security concerns. The initial encounter between Sherlock and Mycroft, inside the confines of the Diogenes Club, a club for the wealthy and powerful in London, is freighted with decades of sibling rivalry and resentment, giving the audience a rare insight into one of Holmes’ formative relationships.
This second, more conventional mystery, while prosaic, and perhaps, too predictable for a mystery involving the great (fictional) detective, serves primarily to humanize Holmes, presenting him as an emotionally vulnerable individual, prone to making mistakes (when emotion trumps reason). This second episode also helps to answer lingering questions about Holmes’ sexual orientation, as well as his complicated relationships and feelings toward women. Last, the second episode shows Holmes, for once, losing a case, making an error in judgment that leads him away from the correct solution to the mystery. The loss adds a tragic dimension to Holmes as a character, a dimension missing, for the most part, from Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories.
Story or themes aside, Robert Stephens, in the lead role as Sherlock Holmes, acquits himself admirably. While most Sherlock Holmes fans prefer Jeremy Brett in the role (Brett played Holmes in a long-running BBC series), and others prefer Basil Rathbone (who essayed the role for American audiences in the 1930s and 1940s). Colin Blakely, as Dr. Watson, is a definite improvement from Rathbone's Dr. Watson, Nigel Bruce. The earlier Dr. Watson was written and performed as a bumbling, stumbling figure, slow on the uptake, and used primarily as a comic foil. Blakely's Dr. Watson is still used as an emphatic comic foil, but his intellectual gifts aren't too far behind Holmes' talents.
Ultimately, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes can be seen as two films: the one currently available to audiences, somewhat undermined by a middling mystery storyline, and the unseen, epic-length film. Sadly, with the unseen episodes irretrievably damaged or lost, an extended edition or a director’s cut, based on restored footage, will never be released. What does exist, however, is a droll, humorous, playful, and humane exploration of a near mythic literary creation.
© Mel Valentin, 27th April, 2005
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