Outside of the refined halls of Edinburgh University, a young Arthur Conan Doyle is learning his first lessons… in murder.
In 1878, when Mr. Doyle meets the brilliant teacher, Dr. Bell, he is drawn away from his studies into a new world of crime investigation. As the pair assists local police in solving their most gruesome cases, Doyle becomes fascinated with Bell’s uncanny talent for outthinking seasoned detectives and outwitting the most clever criminals.
However, one particularly vicious cat-and-mouse game has a different ending. Doyle finds his life completely changed… and even Dr. Bell’s agile mind cannot predict how this story will end!
eyelights: Dr. Bell’s showy genius.
eyesores: the script’s conventions.
I’ve never been a big Sherlock Holmes fan.
I like the idea of Holmes, of a sleuth so knowledgeable and crafty that his powers of deduction are second to none. But I’ve never really gotten into the TV show, movies or even games enough to want to read the books. My key interest in Holmes lies in the fact that one of my closest friends has become a bit of an aficionado.
It’s only recently, when exploring ‘Murder Rooms‘, that I discovered that Watson and Holmes were loosely based on Arthur Conan Doyle himself and his former University professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell was a leader in forensic science and taught much of his craft to Doyle – which he subsequently used for his novels.
In this TV movie, we are introduced to the relationship between master and apprentice through the lens of Doyle, now an author, as he reminisces about his time at the University of Edinburgh. It’s a fictionalized account of their meeting, and their subsequent partnership, and it’s very likely that the facts have been embellished some.
‘Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle’ is primarily about the dynamic between the two characters, even though there are murders and all sorts of mysteries that the pair are trying to resolve and tie together. If anything, those elements are secondary, mere outlets for exposing their mutual respect and the way that the two played off of each other.
Ian Richardson is quite excellent as the good doctor. He actually played Sherlock Holmes on television during the ’80s so he likely had a shorthand into playing the part of Holmes and, thus, Bell. He gives the man confidence and authority, as well a glimmer in his eyes. He was excellent. The only thing that bothered me was his ‘fro, which seemed out of place.
Robin Laing gives Doyle a curiosity and incredulity that befits the character and context. He doesn’t look the part, at least if one considers the historical Doyle, but perhaps the producers wanted someone more fetching as their lead, to help attract an audience – even though the prime attraction of the series ends up being Dr. Bell.
Along with the many mysteries at its core, the telefilm considers the romantic interests of Doyle and delves into the cultural revolution of the time in the form of the first women to attend the University. The fictional Doyle would find his paramour there and one of the piece’s suspects is an opponent of allowing women in the institution.
I quite enjoyed this aspect because it added a dimension to the story that made it feel more realistic; it rooted the film in a very clear place and time and therefore made everything that surrounded it appear more credible. Instead of being lodged in a somewhat nebulous time and place we can easily suppose that the rest has a ounce of truth.
So, although the mystery isn’t really that intriguing or exceptional,’Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes’ has a many other elements sustaining one’s attention. And, irrespective of whether or not it stays close to the facts, it’s nonetheless a fitting start to what would eventually become a terrific mini-series.
Strange as it may sound, this is my favourite incarnation of “Sherlock Holmes” thus far – the writing is slightly sharper and the setting feels more real to me. This is well worth checking out for fans of the iconic sleuth.
Post scriptum: Hmmm… Trapped by Holmes in his lifetime, I wonder what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would say if he were then told that, albeit loosely adapted, his own adventures would turn out to be more appealing than his creation’s.
Date of viewing: April 6, 2013