The second theatrical pairing of Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson has prompted the DVD release of a less familiar Sherlockian outing. Made for the U.S. Hallmark Channel a decade ago, the four 90-minute films in Anchor Bay’s The Sherlock Holmes Collection pair the Canadian-raised Matt Frewer as Holmes with the Canadian-born Kenneth Welsh as Watson.
All sorts of actors have played Holmes, be they suitable (Jeremy Brett, the late, great John Neville), less suitable (Charlton Heston) or in it for the comedy (John Cleese, Michael Caine). Frewer, most famous as Max Headroom, looks a trifle boyish as Holmes, despite the gaunt face. But he has the Sherlockian manner down pat – the impatience with dullards, the hunger for intellectual challenge – and, although this may annoy as many viewers as it delights, his vocal affectations span a couple of octaves in the space of a single vowel.
If Frewer at times seems preoccupied with the mannerisms of Holmes, Welsh comfortably inhabits Watson. This is not the easiest role. Basil Rathbone’s Holmes was yoked more than half a century ago to a Watson (Nigel Bruce) so doltish that one couldn’t imagine Holmes spending more than a couple of minutes in his company, let alone rooming with him. The finest Watson may have been James Mason in Murder by Decree. It was easy to imagine Holmes (Christopher Plummer) leaning on that Watson’s principled shoulders for support.
Welsh, whose past roles include murderous Saskatchewan politician Colin Thatcher in a 1990 biopic and Windom Earle in the series Twin Peaks, is in Mason’s class. His Watson manages the difficult feat of deferring to Holmes while conveying his own unshakable air of authority, a faculty given greatest rein in The Hound of the Baskervilles (2000), for much of which Holmes remains off-screen.
The other three films in the DVD set are The Sign of Four (2001), The Royal Scandal (2001) and The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire (2002), an original story that alludes to Jack the Ripper and Dracula in the manner of the later Rathbone-Bruce films. “A vampire,” Holmes airily informs his landlady, Mrs. Hudson, “is a scientific impossibility. If a monk was murdered, it was at the hands of the living.”
It could have been a considerable disadvantage that these tales steeped in Victorian London and the English moors were shot in Old Montreal and other parts of Quebec, courtesy of financing from the Quebec and Canadian governments. But the set design and cinematography work wonders, and if a few accents stray, it’s hardly fatal. There’s the side benefit of seeing a familiar Canadian face or two, in particular that of R. H. Thomson as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft.
As for Frewer’s interpretation of Holmes, Frewer himself acknowledged the risks in an interview quoted by Alan Barnes in his book Sherlock Holmes on Screen. “There will certainly be Holmes aficionados who will say it’s a bastardization,” he said, “but that’s part of the territory.” Quite right.
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