Saturday, 28 January 2017

REVIEW: Sherlock 4-2 - The Lying Detective

Based on "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" (1913)

You have to hand it to the BBC, it takes guts to let a programme go out with Jimmy Saville as the villain, after being institutionally culpable for his continued crimes. That said, the character played by Toby Jones, Sherlock's version of canonical villain Culverton Smith, isn't especially like Saville. He simply occupies the same niche: a man who is continually able to commit grotesque crimes due to his beloved public persona. He's a showbiz charity darling, in spite of being, on the face of it, utterly revolting and sleazy. The Lying Detective wouldn't work half as well as it does without Jones's repellant characterisation of Smith, and we wouldn't believe Smith's acceptance and success if we hadn't already seen Saville manage it in reality.

As far as Sherlock episodes go, The Lying Detective sticks reasonably closely to the story that inspired it, keeping the main shape of "The Dying Detective." It changes pretty much all of the cosmetic elements, of course, and even the villain is very little like the original; the literary Culverton Smith was merely an implied murderer, not a boastful serial killer. Equally, Holmes is suffering from a disease in the short story, rather than crippling drug addiction. Still, the spirit of the story remains, albeit adapted to the ongoing Sherlock/John/Mary emotional triangle, and the denoument of the story remains essentially the same. Although in the case of The Lying Detective, the episode carries on after the story finishes in order to set up the next instalment of the ongoing series.

This is a standout episode for Cumberbatch, who absolutely sells Sherlock's descent into addiction. Admittedly, we've seen this before on the series, but this is a deeper descent, and the fact that it has all been prompted by Mary's posthumous demand that he "go to hell" to save John doesn't negate this. Whatever kind of plan Sherlock has, there is no way that someone pushes themself to this level without having genuine problems. His friendship with John is what holds Sherlock together; without that, he's one step away from becoming a true obsessive who can only moderate himself through drugs.

The direction in this episode is superb. Nick Hurran is the perfect choice for an episode that revels in confusion and hallucinatory. He has a wonderful knack for the arreting visual. Beyond Cumberbatch, the cast is uniformly excellent, with Martin Freeman, as always, beyond reproach. I'm overjoyed that we haven't seen the last of Amanda Abbington as Mary, even if she is relegated to the faintest of supporting roles. Louise Brealey and Mark Gatiss both get some excellent moments, but it's Una Stubbs who steals this episode. For an episode that is so wound up in the Sherlock-John relationship, it's Mrs Hudson who absolutely steals the show. This series would be a shadow of itself with Stubbs.

The Lying Detective is, if not a stand-out episode of Sherlock, at least a return to form. This is a fine example of the series doing what it does best: a combination of mystery, character drama and arresting visuals.

Stray throughts:

Would anyone, honestly, allow someone to drug them before imparting a confession, just so they could unload themselves without repurcussion? How does Smith find these people? What is wrong with them?

Sian Brooke puts in a wonderful performance as the faux Faith Smith, protraying her as a kind of female equivalent of John Watson, stick and all.

Also a treat to see Tom Brooke back as Bill Wiggins, however briefly.

Strangely satisfying to have a reference to H. H. Holmes, one of the earliest documented historical serial killers, and someone who was a contemporary (albeit in the USA) of the original fictional Sherlock Holmes. 

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