Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Reichenbach Fall: 'Our Traditions Define Us'

'What happened, John?'
'You know why I'm here. My best friend ... Sherlock Holmes ... is dead.'
After last week's adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous work, Sherlock returned to BBC1 on Sunday night with the series two finale The Reichenbach Fall. How long it will be before we see the drama on our TV screens again is, I suspect, a question best left for another day. As with the two other movie-length episodes of the current series, the title once again refers to one of Doyle's best known works, this time it's his 1893 short story The Final Problem. The novella, as the title suggests, was initially supposed to be the author's last work invovling his most famous creation. Of course, as we all know, in light of a highly vocal outcry from his hardcore fandom (oh, how little some things change, even in a hundred and twenty years!) Doyle was forced to return to Holmes and Watson, a decade later. Firstly with the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles and then, back to the short-story format, with The Adventure of the Empty House. The Final Problem was, famously, the story which introduced Doyle's readers to the character of James Moriarty, the equally intelligent and infinitely more psychotic nemesis of the pipe-smoking, cocaine-addled fiddler protagonist. The story ended, memorably, with a trip to the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland where, it all comes to a rather messy ker-splat of an end on the jagged rocks below. Or, so we all thought. And therein lies one of the first difficulties in tackling this story. Because, as noted in last week's review of The Hounds of Baskerville everything you think you know about The Final Problem is likely to be wrong.
'James Moriarty isn't a man at all. He's a spider.' The character of Professor Moriarty, for example, appears in just two of Doyle's stories (The Final Problem and the later novel, The Valley of Fear which is set before the events at Reichenbach). Although dead, he's also central to the plot of The Empty House but, otherwise, he's only mentioned in a handful of other Holmes stories - none of them particularly famous - and usually simply in passing. It was only with the advent of cinema and TV adaptations of Holmes and Watson that the so-called criminal mastermind of a character became, effectively, Holmes's most noteworthy enemy. As with Mycroft, Lestrade and The Baker Street Irregulars, he's in the Doyle stories far less than you might suspect when watching the likes of George Zucco, Laurence Olivier, Eric Porter, Paul Freeman, Daniel Davis or Andrew Scott playing him on-screen. Or, playing a version of him, anyway.
'Falling's just like flying except there's a somewhat permanent destination.' So, we all know what happens at the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem. And, more importantly, The Reichenbach Fall's author, Steve Thompson, knows that we know what we know. And we know he knows we know. Et cetera. It's the day that Sherlock Holmes appears to die the death, and the day that 'The Napoleon of Crime' meets his own watery and pointy-rock-style Waterloo to boot. But, such have been the novel twists and extrapolations on the various parts of the Sherlock Holmes canon from the Sherlock writers across both series of the drama that you would be silly to think The Reichenbach Fall would hinge on so simple a conceit as that. There are no trips to Switzerland here for a kick off and the fall in question in the title is not, necessarily, one from a great height. At least, not in the way you might think. In fact, the entire forward thrust of the story is neatly summed up in a witty opening scene in which Sherlock and John discuss the price of Sherlock's rapidly blossoming fame. If you know what you're looking for, it's all there. 'The press will turn, Sherlock. They always turn. And they'll turn on you.' Meanwhile, back to the villain of the piece. As Jim Moriarty, Andrew Scott's appearance in The Great Game was one of the highlights of the opening three Sherlock tales. Some people - daft glakes, mainly - didn't like the performance considering it, I dunno, too ... something-or-other. You know, the way daft glakes usually consider everything to be too something-or-other. I think there was a trace of homophobia in there somewhere. There usually is where daft glakes are concerned. Then again, there are some people who never liked The Beatles. They are, also, wrong.
In The Reichenbach Fall, Scott once again channels some sort of unholy cross between The Joker (the Heath Ledger version, obviously) and Thomas Crown (with just a hint of Mr Bridger from The Italian Job thrown in there for camp value). And he does so joyously. Scott's Moriarty is brilliant, in all sorts of ways, manic, a thoroughly annoying smart-Alec, as funny as often as he is sinister and very deadly indeed. He is also completely bloody insane. We got that much in The Great Game when, in the midst of pulling faces and battling for the last word with Sherlock at The Swimming Pool of Terror he suddenly, and without warning, screams 'that's what people do!' when Sherlock notes that innocent bystanders have died in the playing of their game. 'You're insane,' Sherlock notes at one point in the current episode. 'You're just getting that now?' asks Moriarty with, seeming, genuine surprise. As in his previous appearances, Scott has an absolute ball playing the role - all malevolent stares and childish tantrums with sniggering moments of base depravity never far from the surface. There's a balletic brilliance in his cat-like movements, and every line he has drips with casual menace, even the funny ones. 'Every fairy tale needs a good old fashioned villain.' And, 'I own secrecy.' As the indestructible force of Moriarty's thirst for vengeance meets the immovable object of Sherlock's genius, the viewer very quickly realises that whatever happens over the next hour and a half, these two men are bound together on a pre-determined and narrow course that's heading in only one direction. It's The Doctor and The Master or Batman and The Joker, two sides of the same, flawed, coin. The consulting detective and the consulting criminal. And this is the episode where the coin, quite literally, drops.
'We're alike, you and I. Except you're boring. You're on the side of the angels.' Moriarty sits, spider-like, at the centre of a giant and sinister web of conspiracy, intrigue and naughtiness - as alluded to in The Great Game and in a metaphor which this episode takes quite literally. This time he's spinning a devious and highly complicated trap around Sherlock. The strands at first are too fine for anyone to understand them - even Holmes himself - but soon the viewer can see the trap closing. Woven into the episode are numerous Holmesian references of several shades of obscurity. This blogger particularly enjoyed the nod to one of Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson's favourite texts, Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes via The Diogenes Club (and the fact that one of the secretive old men there is former TV Holmes Douglas Wilmer). Through all this, Sherlock bears his burgeoning humanity like a bleeding wound, and though series two has been largely about Benny Cumberbatch taking Holmes into the uncharted areas of his own nihilist neurosis, one should never forget Martin Freeman's superb and consistent portrayal of John Watson, which has never been stronger, nor more moving, than it is here. From 'you're this far from famous' all the way to the heartfelt 'I was so alone and I owe you so much .... Don't! Be! Dead!' Watson, the loyal companion and brave soldier, who has seen so much horror and so many comrades fall in Afghanistan - appears to see his closest friend fall too. And fall all the way to the bottom.
The plot goes something like this: The Tower of London, Pentonville Prison and the Bank of England are all broken into on the same day - and yet nothing whatsoever is stolen. Sherlock is convinced that it is the work of his old foe Jim Moriarty, and as the two masterminds lock horns in a final confrontation which tests loyalty and courage to the limits, the detective finds himself fighting for his reputation, his sanity and, of course, his life (and those of his friends). The funeral atmosphere of the opening and closing scenes - Toby Haynes direction is brilliant throughout - bookend a story with great pace and clever juxtaposing of conceits.
The dialogue is stunning. Take your pick from, for example: 'There's all sorts of stories in the press about you. Sooner of later, you're going to need someone on your side.' And: 'We don't want a repeat of 1972!' There's Molly's finest line so far: 'You're a bit like my dad. He's dead.' Or, when Watson is told by Mycroft that Baker Street is, suddenly, full of assassins moving into flats in the locale for no adequately explained reason apart from their proximity to Sherlock: 'Well, it is handy for the Jubilee Line!' There's: 'Put the hat on!' And Lestrade's dryly sarcastic: 'Don't let it get to you. I always feel like screaming when you walk in the room!' And, best of all: 'Apparently, it's against the law to chin the Chief Superintendent!'
There's: 'Nobody can fake being such an amazing dick all the time.' There's: 'You. Repell. Me.' Virtually every line, near enough every word has some power, some ability to make the viewer laugh, or be touched, or be surprised by ongoing developments. Simple little statements like John telling Mycroft: 'Moriarty wanted Sherlock destroyed and you have given him the perfect opportunity,' look bland on paper but when they're delivered in the way the dialogue in this episode is, they take on a whole new meaning.
'Everybody gets a tabloid nickname!' There was so much good stuff on display in this episode. The court scenes are wonderful. So is the chase through the Soho back streets. Little moments of characterisation and big sweeping grandiloquent shots of majestic and beautiful panoramas. London has never looked more beautiful. The small and twatty stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the vainglorious and the jaw-dropping. There's bravado in the face of a fall - both literal and a fall from grace: 'You want me to shake hands with you in Hell? I shall not disappoint you.' There's Sherlock's little laugh on the rooftop as he figures out the one flaw in Moriarty's otherwise flawless plan. 'There are two types of fans; catch-me-before-I-kill-again is Type A.' 'What's Type B?' 'Your bedroom is just a taxi-ride away.' There's a stunt involving a London bus and a double suicide on the roof of St Bart's. That never happened for Peter Cushing or Basil Rathbone.
There's a display of utter magnificence, in the face of tragedy, by a grave side - an eloquent epitaph for a fallen comrade: 'You told me once that you weren't a hero. There were times I didn't even think you were human. But let me tell you this, you were the best man, the most human ... human-being I ever met. And no one will convince me you told me a lie.'
'Sometimes, you look sad when you think he can't see you.' In The Reichenbach Fall we get a pointed essay on the way in which the modern media can create and then destroy reputations on a whim, even of those who have no wish to play their cruel and twisted games. We have an accurate (and caustic) look a fan worship in all its forms, particularly that which borders on - and spills into - obsession. We get a moral dilemma from which the only, apparent, way out is an act of pure self-sacrifice. Which, for a narcissist like Sherlock Holmes might be regarded as something to be looked forward to rather than avoided. Isn't that always the way? 'That's what you do when you sell a big lie. You wrap it up in a truth to make it more personal.' 'Do you think you could survive for just a few minutes without showing off?' John asks Sherlock before their date in court. And, of course, he simply can't. He wouldn't be Sherlock otherwise. That leads to his downfall. Literal, as well as metaphorical.
But wisdom, discovered in a graveyard, is at hand before the final curtain is taken and there is - it would seem - a way back from the edge. How did he survive? With loyal 'important' Molly's help, a strategically placed flatbed truck, Moriarty's corpse (or, was it the mannequin seen hanging earlier in Baker Street?), John being exactly where Sherlock told him to be on the phone when he jumped, a passing member of the Baker Street Irregulars on a bike and a bit of Baskerville gas to complete the illusion that John was seeing Sherlock's corpse. Mycroft may well have been involved to (after all, he didn't look particularly upset when reading about his brother's death in the Sun). Simple. Or, maybe it'll be something completely different and fiendishly complicated. We'll find out, eventually. In a couple of years time, perhaps, when Benny and Martin have finished playing Star Trek villains and Hobbits and Steven and Mark have a bit more time on their hands not writing about an eleven hundred year old Time Lord. 'Whenever you have eliminated the impossible, whatever is left, however improbably, must be the truth,' Sherlock Holmes once said. A hundred years ago in a book written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and, also last week, in a episode of TV series adapted by Mark Gatiss. So, what do we reckon, dear blog reader - The Curious Case of the Empty House sometime around summer 2013? I wouldn't bet against it. Especailly when naughty Mr Moffat confirmed series three's commissioning on Twitter about ten minutes after the episode ended! Until then, I guess, there's just this.
'Most people knock. But then, you're not "most people." The kettle's just boiled.'

1 comment:

Whitney 221B said...

I am looking for the British perspective on what Mycroft means when he says at the Diogenes Club, "We don't want a repeat of 1972." I presume this is a reference to a political scandal but ... if so, which one? Bloody Sunday, Munich, Watergate all happened in 1972. Was there a scandal in the English government that year?