WARNING: THERE ARE (QUITE MILD) SPOILERS AHEAD IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN A STUDY IN PINK YET!It’s a very hard job to breathe fresh life into a character that’s been represented so many times on stage and screen. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, after all, it’s only been eight months since Robert Downey Jr’s period take on Fight Club hit the screens, and promptly ate up lots of box office cash. So what could Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss offer to make us sit up and take notice?
As it happens, an awful lot.
Their version of Sherlock takes little time in letting us know we’re in contemporary times. Doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman) is an army doctor back from Afghanistan, and by opening on battle scenes – as well as a series of melancholy shots of Watson alone, or trying to blog – the production immediately sets a very different tone.
The titles then re-emphasise that this is a modern crime series that we’re watching and not a period piece, and great effort is made from the off to establish that this is a very modern Sherlock. But it’s one that, as it turns out, is faithful to the source material’s spirit, too.
It’s not long into A Study In Pink that Watson comes into contact with Sherlock Holmes for the first time, and Steven Moffat’s script teases the build-up to his appearance terrifically well. The scene at the police press conference, with Holmes texting the assembled throng time after time, is very well done, and very funny too. It builds up the entrance of the character with real skill.
However, before I get to the character of Sherlock himself, it’d be wrong not to acknowledge just how the opening scenes also highlight very quickly just how tight Paul McGuigan’s direction is.
McGuigan, whose background is movies such as Gangster Number One and Lucky Number Slevin, is a brilliant, brilliant choice here. Throughout A Study In Pink, his camerawork is unfussy, and he applies a filmic version of the laws of thirds to many of his frames. It’s to great effect, too.
Furthermore, come the big climactic scene, he’s happy to ground his camera, eschewing close-ups in favour of having two actors talk to each other. It’s at the point where Sherlock confronts his nemesis face to face that McGuigan’s camera moves the least. Granted, the quality of the written material enables him to do this, but he wisely figures that we’re interested in seeing the story being told, rather than any distracting gimmickry. As such, McGuigan’s steady hand is very welcome, indeed.
He also employs some terrific little techniques, specifically the text messages appearing on screen, which we first see during the aforementioned press conference scene. This too could have been a gimmick in the wrong hands, but it’s used sparingly, and to give the audience pieces of important information. I really liked the way he staged the foot-chase after the cab, too, taking advantage of Mr Holmes’ inner-satnav.
So, back to Sherlock himself, then. For not long after the aforementioned press conference, we finally get to meet Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock for the first time. He’s a texting-mad, nicotine patch-wearing creation, a man who the police tolerate rather than embrace (he is, after all, the only consulting detective in the world), and in some cases actively dislike.
Acknowledging that people usually tell him to piss off, Cumberbatch plays Holmes in the early stages as a straight know-it-all, and it’s only when we’re allowed a quick wink in Watson’s direction later on in the story that other sides to his character come through.
In the early stages, though, Sherlock’s delight at uncovering a serial killer at work offers suggestions that he enjoys the crimes as much as the killer. In his words, after all, “the game is on”. It’s left then to John Watson – himself fighting potential post traumatic stress disorder – to try and keep up, and a crime-fighting double act heads off to work.
Cumberbatch proves to be a superb choice as Sherlock, a confident, committed, brilliant man, but one fighting back curiosity (er, just not very hard) and a need to be Inspector Google at all times. His portrayal is both interesting, and very much his own, and he anchors the show extremely well.
But credit too to Martin Freeman as well. Many of Freeman’s roles in recent times have fallen into some kind of derivative of Tim from The Office. Yet, last year we saw him as Chris Curry in Micro Men taking a more serious turn, and here he’s very strong indeed as Watson. He underplays the character very well, both complementing the frenetic nature of Holmes, while remaining very still in his portrayal for large parts of the story.
There’s an obvious parallel of sorts to be drawn between Doctor Who and his assistant here, but Holmes and Watson doesn’t work like that. Holmes needs Watson’s intelligence and predictable reliability rather than his emotional support, and unlike Who, where the Doctor is economical with his dialogue, it’s Watson who observes quietly, only interjecting where necessary. Freeman captures that very well, indeed, and it’ll be interesting to see him develop the role across the initial order of three adventures.
The actual case itself that Holmes and Watson face in this maiden story is engaging, and offers ample opportunity for both Sherlock and Dr Watson to contribute their respective skills. And as you’d hope, there’s a great deal of fun to be had in watching how it all unwinds. It’s perhaps not the most demonstrative of Holmes’ adventures to kick off with, but that’s not a bad thing given just how much business A Study In Pink has to get through.
For this is the bit where, not for the first time this year, I find myself sending plaudits to the man behind the word processor.
Steven Moffat’s script is the grounding strength of Sherlock. It subtlety crams in quite a lot of work, while still giving us space to sit back and enjoy the adventure. It’s a confident, energetic, funny and very entertaining piece of writing, that manages to pack together a case, the introduction of the main characters and Sherlock ecosystem, along with underlying threads for later on. It also bristles with the quality of dialogue that Moffat has built a reputation upon (“He’s a great man. If we’re lucky, he might be a good one”, for instance), and isn’t afraid to have fun teasing the relationship between Sherlock and Watson, either.
In short, he’s based his script on A Study In Scarlet, yet he’s made his version very much his own.
Just popping really picky pants on for a minute, while I loved the denouement to the story, I didn’t get quite the sense of threat from it that the opening of the story was implying. But I take that as a by-product of making the drama so character-focused, of putting clever people against clever people, and didn’t feel like it hurt A Study In Pink at all. Arguably, it helps it, if anything. Also, I’d guessed the mystery of the story prior to its revelation, but again, I can’t say it dampened my enjoyment at all.
Because ultimately, I thought this was a rollicking 90 minutes of entertainment, the kind of new high profile drama that we don’t tend to get treated to in the summer months. It’s set a very high standard for next week’s story to follow, and it’s laid some obvious threads to be picked up over the coming weeks. But even as a one-off, standalone piece of entertainment, it worked a treat.
Furthermore, for my money, anyway, it puts the tepid big budget movie of last winter firmly in its place too.
Roll on next week for adventure number two, then, and I’d be grateful if someone at the BBC could greenlight a few more of these stories when they get to the office on Monday morning…