Synopsis: Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes tells the story of the relationship between the young Arthur Conan Doyle (Charles Edwards, Batman Begins) and his real life mentor and noted forensic scientist, Dr. Joseph Bell (Ian Richardson, From Hell), as they unite to solve the most baffling murder cases in Victorian Scotland.
I almost skipped this one, and probably would have if I hadn’t felt so compelled to thoroughly cover all of my Sherlock Holmes-related material. Aside from its title, it seemed like a half-hearted attempt to keep Holmes alive, with original stories that were not rehashed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle goods. But, after having watched the travesty that is the Guy Ritchie film, I figured it had to be a step up either way.
In fact, it’s probably the best “Sherlock Holmes” fiction that I’ve seen thus far. I put “Sherlock Holmes” in quotations because it’s not actually a Sherlock Holmes television show, per se. Instead, it’s a fictional take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early years as a doctor, with facts and fiction mixed together into a most pleasing concoction.
I know very little about Doyle, other than the fact that he created Sherlock Holmes and that he looked nothing like the actor in this series of short films, but it is a known fact that Holmes was loosely modelled after Joseph Bell, Doyle’s former university teacher – and for whom he worked as a clerk.
In this fictional take on Doyle’s life, Bell is called on to investigate mysteries and drags Doyle along as his side-kick, teaching him his methods of deduction along the way – and, thus, serving as an alternate Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in the process. The focus remains on Doyle, however, and his personal life is also explored in what I suspect is a relatively loose fashion.
Still, the final product is quite good. In the DVD set that I watched, all four tele-films featuring Ian Richardson as Bell/Holmes and Charles Edwards as Doyle/Watson are included. For reasons that escape me, the original TV movie featuring Robert Laing as Doyle was not available in this set. Thus, this is not a truly complete set.
But the four that were in the set are of very high quality. The production is top-notch and offers a realistic look at 19th century Scotland through the eyes of the budding doctor. The pacing of each film is absolutely in keeping with the genre and the era (as opposed to, say, the hyper-frenetic Guy Ritchie film! ). At no point do we get the sense that the films cut corners on any level, including plot-wise. The only thing lacking is typical of TV productions – and that is scope. Oh well.
A few notes about the telefilms:
The Patient’s Eyes: I’d give this one an 8.0, even though the great reveal stretches the boundaries of credulity. The whole build-up and development was quite good, as were the introductions of both of our protagonists.
The Photographer’s Chair: This one merits only a 7.75, if only because it delves into spiritualism and, thus, is more abstract and less credible. The moment someone throws magic or religion into it and lets the protagonists get suckered by these ploys I get a little antsy.
The Kingdom Of Bones: This film deserves a solid 8.0 for piecing together a very good mystery and giving us some background political shenanigans along the way. While the ending is hardly explosive, it doesn’t take away from the rest of the piece too much.
The White Knight Stratagem: By far my favourite of the bunch and worth a handsome 8.25, this one pits Bell against an old rival as they both try to make sense of some murders and a related suicide. Doyle gets caught in the middle due to his respect for Bell and his admiration for Bell’s rival.
Richardson may not look like Sherlock Holmes (he is playing Joseph Bell, after all), but he played the character of Holmes quite right in many ways. He embodied the character’s confidence and coolness and it made it difficult to remember that this was supposed to be a real person, not the fictional one that Doyle created. In this respect, it was a grand achievement, because he managed to blur the lines to great effect.
Edwards’ Doyle is less impressive, but is completely believable as a doctor with a new practice, and as the assistant of a man he looks up to. He is played as a very plain fellow with a few romantic delusions and a fairly sharp mind. Clearly, he was meant to be “everyman” enough to relate to, but the genius of this choice is that his minimal charisma kept the focus on Bell even though Doyle is the main character.
All in all, it all made for some rather enjoyable mysteries, complete with just the right amount of character development to flesh out the stories. These films were popular enough upon release to warrant another series, but it was never to be. It’s a damned shame but, thanks to home video, at least we have the opportunity to revisit these ‘Murder Rooms’ at will. And I can assure you that I plan to.