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One of Conan Doyle's best Holmes stories is adapted to perfection in
this, the first feature length Holmes adventure from Granada
Television. Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke are fantastic (as always)
and the supporting cast are quite good, not to mention appropriately
quirky (especially important in this adventure).
The adaptation itself is, as was typical with the Granada series (and at least the first two feature length outings), quite faithful to the original story. It's well crafted and beautifully directed, with all the twists and turns of the Conan Doyle original (one of his most remarkable tales).
In short, this version of The Sign of Four manages to outshine all previous adaptations, and hasn't been rivaled since. The 1983 television version with Ian Richardson was certainly passable, but doesn't come close to this. Once again, Granada prove that their Holmes is without equal.
Of all the Granada Sherlock Holmes presentations, I believe this to be the best. It has an intricate plot with an amazing story behind it. It is full of unforgettable characters. It has action. It has the Baker Street Irregulars. It has a dog named Toby. Mostly, it is full of life. Jeremy Brett is never better than in this presentation. The British imperialists in India must have been an interesting lot. There's that whole thing with entitlement through domination and power. The four men who become embroiled in the plot are dedicated to each other, even unto death. The two brothers, whose father turns out to be the fly in the ointment, are incredible, both physically and in terms of character. What is the revenge about? It's betrayal, but what is it based on? Where is the treasure? What is the treasure? Where did those strange footprints come from? It all unfolds with hardly a wasted moment in the almost two hour feature. There's also the romantic intentions of Watson who marries the young woman later, if you read the books. This is the young woman he leaves behind constantly as he and Holmes run off on their adventures. If you have an opportunity, see this.
This is an extremely faithful adaptation of the original Doyle novel, and for purists, it can hardly be objected to (although the novel does start and end with Holmes' drug usage -- but is clearly eliminated in this adaptation, apparently by Jeremy Brett who thoroughly objected to that aspect of Doyle's character). As for the uninitiated, or general viewer, it's a bit of a slog. Brett is snappish and somewhat rude at times, unlike the Holmes of the stories, but otherwise excellent, with a gritty baritone that is quite commanding. Ronald Lacey almost steals the show as the Sholto brothers (and it's sad that he would die only a few years later). The real problem with this film is the slack editing and low key direction. Many scenes provide opportunity for dramatic punch but are handled matter-of-factly, with no help from an equally low-key music score. Also, the series of requisite backstories presented in the novel is too much for the film, getting to a point where we're even given a flashback-within-a-flashback. And to top it off, the climax of the story is yet another backstory flashback. It IS Doyle and it IS faithful, so you can't complain that the filmmakers took liberties and fouled things up... but the weakness of the novel as film material is also exposed. Purists though, should be delighted.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Conan-Doyle wrote four novellas that featured Holmes and Watson. The
most familiar, and by far the most often filmed, is "The Hound of the
Baskervilles," and for good reasons. (1) It's long enough to be a
feature film without being padded, (2) Holmes is a fully blown
character, and (3) the story isn't just an intellectual challenge or
adventure -- it's positively eerie, with hints of the demonic.
Of the others -- "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Valley of Fear" -- it can be said of the first that when we're introduced, little by little, to the young Holmes, he's really an oddball and has mental and behavioral habits that never appear elsewhere in the canon, as Watson himself does. For instance, Holmes learns for the first time that the planets revolve around the sun and immediately tries to forget it because he doesn't want his storage capacity challenged. Watson keeps a bull pup, which is never mentioned again.
"The Valley of Fear", to my knowledge, hasn't ever provided the framework for a popular feature film. It appears late, and Conan-Doyle seemed to be grinding out the stories to make a living. Holmes has no quirks, no affinity for dope, shows no penetrating insight or feats of deduction, and some of his inferences are plain silly. The hero is dull.
In "The Sign of Four", Holmes is fully blown, is driven by boredom to use his seven-percent solution, and rips off some apothegms from Edgar Allan Poe's August Dupin. The story is full of delightful characters too, including eccentrics from India and a murderous cannibal dwarf. The Baker Street Irregulars make a prominent appearance. The movie gets it all down, with monster hookahs being used, mounted tiger heads, and a shivery performance by Ronald Lacey as an anxiety neurotic and a frozen, smiling corpse. There's an exciting launch chase on the Thames near the end.
The story has what I'd consider a weakness that it shares with "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Valley of Fear." There's a long, involved back story explaining the experiences of the villain that led to his criminal act. It's as if the author was just itching all over to put his most famous creation behind him and get on to more ambitious literary things but the poor guy was stuck with Holmes and Watson.
Yet, in the long run, grinding out his detective fiction didn't do either Conan-Doyle or Holmes much good. Towards the end of the canon, in the Memoirs and the Case Book, the stories are becoming benumbed, as are the characters -- with some notable exceptions. I guess it's possible for an author to just plain write himself out.
As a feature, this film is quite good. The heavy is played by John Thaw, "Inspector Morse," buried under a lot of make up and accompanied by a native of the Andaman Islands who is given a bad rap by Conan-Doyle. The Andamanese were an outlier of the British empire, flung off the Indian coast and seldom visited except by anthropologists and second-rate colonial officers. The islands were hit by the tsunami of 2004 but were so isolated that nobody knew or cared much about the damage. (The anthropologist's name was A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, if anyone wants to look it up.) I can chew over the villain's experiences in India because the rest of the story is so colorful and intrinsically interesting. It includes one of those "locked room murders" that so fascinate mystery writers.
And it goes without saying that, whatever Conan-Doyle might have thought of Holmes and Watson, Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke do justice to the characters.
Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant crime series, and has a brilliant star
in the name of Jeremy Brett, who was without doubt the best Sherlock
What is excellent about this adaptation, is the closeness to the book, and of course the acting of Brett and Hardwicke. And the fine camera work and period detail. Jenny Seagrove and Ronald Lacey did very well in their roles.
But for me, the highlight was the boat on the river chase, and the introduction of Jonathan Small(the flashback sequences were very interesting and beautifully played too), who was brilliantly played by the late John Thaw. He was the best actor in the adaptation, apart from Brett. It must be really uncomfortable with a wooden leg though. Great music too, very haunting at the beginning especially.
This is really good, if a little creepy, Tonga was very scary. The Ian Richardson version is also good, but not as effective. 9/10 Bethany cox
JEREMY BRETT and EDWARD HARDWICKE head the cast of an excellent version
of THE SIGN OF THE FOUR, given fine support by JENNY SEAGROVE, RONALD
LACEY and JOHN THAW.
The intricate story begins with a young woman (Jenny Seagrove) coming to Holmes with a story involving the mysterious disappearance of her father. Several years after his death she began receiving yearly presents of priceless pearls, one by one each year. The story becomes more and more complex as more of the characters involved in her father's disappearance come to the fore. Among them, RONALD LACEY, who gives a quirky performance as twin brothers whose father wanted them to receive his inheritance. JENNY SEAGROVE and JOHN THAW are particularly interesting in well-defined supporting roles.
All the Victorian atmosphere is here along with elaborate settings and fine color photography. The two hours go by swiftly, since there's so much story to tell. Well worth watching with only a few scenes toward the end that seem to go on too long.
Out of all feature films with the great Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes this is by far the best. It has great elements in it such as Imperialist India, Missing Treasure, Baker Street Irregulars, and a Dog named Toby. What is not to like? The story is complex, colorful, and intricate and as it progresses in words of Watson "it grows darker than clearer" but the solution to the case is clever and quite powerful. It is faithful to the original story and it is beautifully crafted and realized. Like many Granada Adaptations it creates a marvelous atmosphere. Edward Hardwicke is superb as Dr. Watson with Ronald Lacey, Jenny Seagrove, and John Thaw (best known for playing Colin Dexter's grouchy and very cultured Inspector Morse) providing fine support as well. The production values, music, and photography are excellent. The only complaint is that it slogs a little bit towards the end but it is only a minor complaint. In my opinion, this two hour adaptation of the classic Sherlock Holmes novella is one of Granada's finest hours.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Granada Television made a solid 1987 TV movie of Conan Doyle's justly
popular adventure novel, of 4 men who believed that they were in the
right place at the right time. I very much enjoyed this version,
including the back-story during the last part. As other reviewers have
noted, Granada did not include all of Holmes's habits, the descriptions
of some foreigners, and the romance between Dr Watson and Mary.
What surprised me though, because Granada's script took many sentences verbatim from the 1890 novel, were the many errors in the subtitles in the US 2003 DVD version. The actors did enunciate clearly for me, so I wonder if a machine -- or someone ignorant of various English phrases -- actually compiled the subtitles. For example the subtitles have "my besetting thing" for the actual "my besetting sin". Also: "inaudible" for "Mind there, mind there, for he bites something wicious." "Awe the energetic Jones the ubiquitous reporter" for "Ah, the energetic Jones and the ubiquitous reporter". "3 bob and a tenner" for "3 bob and a tanner". "If our man had an easy task just as ours ought to be." for "If ever a man had an easy task, this of ours ought to be." "2 stout men" for "2 staunch men". "Cease you." for "Heave to!" "you'll be court marshaled" for "you'll be court-martialed". "a nice cushy villa" for "a nice cushy billet". "I had a pretty nasty face in myself" for "I've had a pretty nasty facer myself." "pilgrims from Malay bound for Gito" for "pilgrims from Malay bound for Jiddah". And many more.
Not to worry, though. If you're hard of hearing or a non-native speaker, the novel is of course readily available online. And, as both Shakespeare and Doyle noted, "The game is afoot."
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