Saturday, October 13, 2012

The greatest Sherlock Holmes ever

I discovered an absolutely wizard video series last month: someone on Karagarga mentioned that there had been a Russian version of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, filmed in the Soviet Union between 1979 and 1986. When I looked it up, I read all sorts of superlatives, especially about the actors who played Holmes and Watson, Vassily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin. I was pretty skeptical - who could possibly be better than Jeremy Brett? - but I figured it wouldn't hurt to check it out.

To my astonishment, I found myself in agreement with all those excitable reviewers! I think Livanov IS the best Holmes. It's an interesting experience, to watch these very familiar English stories and hear all the dialogue in Russian, but it doesn't take long to get used to it. And Livanov is a very engaging Holmes, so you want to keep watching to see what he does next. He's a much warmer Holmes than Brett's - I think part of this is the Russian style. He laughs much more, and even plays silly practical jokes on Watson - though you could argue that that's not entirely out of character, as Holmes sets up Watson for a little surprise in "The Empty House" when he shows him the view of 221B Baker Street from across the street, and Watson sees the life-size bust of Holmes silhouetted in the window. Of course, Holmes is said to laugh silently, whereas the Russians have him burst out into loud laughter, but he was never meant to be an entirely humourless man..

But in this series, he comes across as a quite believable person, someone who'd have no trouble fitting into society, despite his eccentric occupation. By contrast, Brett seems to me like a mentally ill Holmes, who would be an outcast in society if it were not for his special skills. Livanov doesn't stress at all the angst of the character, not even the misanthropy; he seems perfectly comfortable with women, and the sort of man women would feel comfortable with in turn. There's none of that prickly alarm when a woman comes into view; it's just another client, and this Holmes brings out more the chivalry and protectiveness that's there in the original Conan Doyle Holmes, which I think Brett's interpretation rather ignored.

I have to admit that all these derogatory descriptions of Jeremy Brett's interpretation only occurred to me AFTER I'd seen Livanov; before that, his seemed to me the authoritative performance. But now... Ah, well, idols are meant to be toppled, I suppose.

That said, there are some oddities in this series. I could get used to Livanov's more lighthearted Holmes, but one thing that always stuck out for me was the Russianness of the sets and locations. I believe that Riga was used as the stand-in for London when it came to street scenes, and I could just TELL that it wasn't London. It was too clean, the townhouses look elegantly baroque with bright coloured plaster - it was far too bright and cheerful to be London during the era of Jack the Ripper!

Similarly, the country scenes also didn't look like England - you can just tell. It's not green enough, not soft enough, the trees look different somehow; you just KNOW that this isn't really England. And the architecture at times could be downright weird. This was a TV series made for a Russian public, so I figure they were creating what the Russians envisioned as the English style, but the houses look so very un-English. In the end, all these strange styles produced a funny effect; I came to feel that the stories were taking place in a sort of fantasyland England that never existed. An England where everyone speaks Russian. Sort of like in Harry Potter, where you have a wizarding England that bears some resemblance to the real, humdrum England we all have to live in, but suddenly veers off in odd directions when you're not expecting it.

There's a lot of this series on YouTube, and I highly recommend that you check it out. But beware, and don't do what I did, which was to start off with 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'. It's the most famous, most familiar story, so I thought it'd be the easiest introduction. Well, it's not. There's a lot of Russian weirdness in this version. For one thing, it adds a lot of humour, and to the English 'Hound' is NOT a funny story at all. It gets points for fidelity to the original by making Sir Henry Baskerville Canadian; on the other hand, it loses points by turning him into some kind of wild yahoo dressed in bearskins and leather chaps! He's like a Russian Yukon Cornelius. I'll grant that the Jeremy Brett version of this story is better - probably the best, in fact. Laura Lyons is quite an unusual character here - she smokes a pipe, which might mean something in Russian characterization, or maybe was just a way of adding colour. The music is quite lovely.

The first series is called "Acquaintance", and introduces all the characters in proper order, and strictly according to canon. It's a combination of 'A Study in Scarlet' and 'The Speckled Band'. Actually, ALL the series (except Hound) end up combining 2 or more stories into a continuous story. So Series 2 starts with 'King of Blackmailers' (The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton), then links this to 'The Final Problem', which also contains some foreshadowing of 'The Empty House', and finishes off with 'The Empty House'. The 3 separate stories all flow into each other, and sometimes you'll find that the story being told breaks away to start up a new story, only to go back to the original later.

I checked YouTube, but the only subtitled section of the series I could find is this segment from 'The Empty House' (called 'Tiger Hunt' here).

The subtitles are a bit nutty, but you can understand what's going on. You get to meet the extremely annoying Inspector Lestrade, and you can see that they make Holmes's return a lot funnier than in the Granada series. It's a pity that they provide only this one clip, because this series presents the scariest Moriarty I've ever seen. He really does look threatening and frightening; you can believe that Sherlock Holmes himself would find it necessary to run from this guy. And the idea that poor good-hearted Watson could be marked for death because he's close to Holmes...(shudder) You can see him in the trailer at the top. It's funny how certain images are unmistakeable. If you see a young man holding a skull in his hands and studying it, you know it's Hamlet. And when you see two men struggling on the brink of a waterfall, you KNOW it's Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty!

Anyway, it's definitely worth checking out.


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