Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Hinterland of Sherlock Holmes

From the BBC
From Wikipedia
The howls of outrage and disappointment must have been echoing all over the country. That was one of the worst Sherlock Holmes I've ever seen including Peter Cook in Hound of the Baskervilles. Coming on the heels of the scintillating early episodes, this will have made people all the more grumpy. Where did it all go wrong?

From Wikipedia
It's interesting that there are two Sherlock adaptations around just now. Guy Ritchie's is in a way a more successful pastiche. His cinematography offers us a satisfyingly convincing Victorian London (that scene with the river in the first film; you really get a sense of the grubby muddy industrial and commercial Victorian world). However nobody would pretend that Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock is any approximation of the Conan Doyle character: the ascetic selfless rational emotion-free genius. He is just great fun! rollicking through the ripping yarn adventures which Ritchie provides for him and Jude Law.

Benedict Cumberbatch offers a more convincingly Doyle Sherlock: the human machine, with the dependable homely Martin Freeman picking up the pieces.

And what do they do with this pair? They pop them into a story in which Doyle's gentle sweet governess Mary Morstan turns out to be an accomplished assassin and all-round liar! Flashback scenarios worthy of a bad acid trip take us on a whirligig nonsense trip ... actually I can't quite even remember the convolutions of the silly story. It started really well. Lindsay Duncan is a lovely Lady in distress - the scene when the villain licks her face and she is unable to protest is spine-tinglingly good. A newspaper proprietor as villain! I sat back in my chair prepared to enjoy a sharp commentary on 21st century society.

Then it all went tits-up.

From Mi Mundo blog
I say that deliberately. It's the women who are the problem in both Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Poor Guy Ritchie started with a splendid female character. His Irene Adler is feisty and clearly Trouble with a capital Dodge-that-bullet. I should say off-hand that she is probably based on Madonna, and unfortunately by the second Sherlock film, Guy Ritchie was over her. So we got his version of Mary Morstan instead: a shrewish creature who has an inimical and irritated relationship with Holmes. 

From Fanpop
As for the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock episodes, look at the women in them. Molly Hooper, bumbling and desperate; Mrs Hudson - not realising she was married to the head of a drugs cartel. Their Irene Adler is a dominatrix, which is ... a bit scary-dangerous, but way too sexy for the cold reasoning brain who is Sherlock Holmes so she doesn't get much of a look-in. (She makes a Doylian point in a 21st century way: brainy is the new sexy.) Oh, we haven't even mentioned Mary Morstan/Watson yet: lovely sweet ordinary surgery receptionist. Liar and assassin.

This is how Conan Doyle described Irene Adler, in Watson's voice:

From 2000 irises
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer.

What emerges from this is not anything about Irene Adler, or women. What emerges is something about the character of Holmes. He is an iconic persona of his age: 'the most perfect reasoning and observing machine'. At the peak of the industrial revolution, when machine was king, Conan Doyle wrote an allegory of the age. He wrote a story about a human who was the perfect machine.

Holmes is not just a 'machine'; he is a perfect brain. There is a more perfect brain in the Holmes stories: Mycroft, who doesn't exert himself as Sherlock does, he only moves in a stately and restricted circle between his government office and the Diogenes club. What does he become in the two adaptations of the Holmes stories? For Guy Ritchie he is the gay exhibitionist played by Stephen Fry. Like Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock, Fry's Mycroft is hugely entertaining and funny. In the Moffatt/Gattis version, he is played by Gattis. He is camp and devious compared to the more morally straightforward (a bit, OK, he does pretend to offer a woman a diamond engagement ring just to get into her employer's flat) Sherlock. Fun and fascinating although both are, neither would lead us to say: "brainy is the new sexy".

As usual in stories of this kind, it's the most obvious yet most overlooked character who is really the central figure. If we read Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories as an allegory of the machine age, and study of humanism, then we are being presented with the human as perfect machine in a way which makes us go: "Uh, no thank you." Secretly, however much we admire Sherlock, and even Mycroft, we think we are Watson. We are a bit bumbling and error-prone, humble humans. We fall in love. We might not be able to spot the essential clue and solve a mind-bending puzzle saving civilisation as we know it in seconds; but we are (luckily) capable of feeling the 'softer passions'.

What then of the Guy Ritchie and Moffatt/Gattis adaptations? Their Sherlock Holmeses are not perfect brains, they often show a human emotional side (Sherlock snogging Molly when she helps him 'die', Sherlock appearing in drag to save Watson and Mary on their honeymoon train). For them, women are not 'the woman', emblematic of their sex - to be admired and adored but at a distance. Women have come closer for these Sherlocks; they are insoluble problems so they become intensely annoying bits of grit in the machinery. Next to Irene Adler, Doyle's Sherlock is the perfect machine. Guy Ritchie's seems too immature to cope with her. The Moffatt/Gattis Sherlock is a sociopath.

As an allegory for our age, this is worrying. From being the actual fabric of society against which the perfect machine of the brain operates, humanity - frail, erratic, emotional - seems to have been lost. Humanity seems to have been condemned to representation in the problematic feminine. From being the one who picks up the pieces, it's become the spanner in the works of the perfect machine who needs to save civilisation as we know it.

Never mind, turn over for something different. Oh it's on the same channel - well, it is if you live in Wales.

From Wikipedia
Hinterland is strongly reminiscent of Forbrydelsen (The Killing), in which a woman police officer rather than a bloke is at the heart of the story. However, giving the story a more traditional male lead as chief detective doesn't take away anything from the central theme we are exploring here. Traditionally detective stories of this kind (think Wallender and Rebus) are about the loneliness of men who are struggling emotionally. Forbrydelsen was no different, in that Sarah Lund was totally incompetent at relationships. The main relationship she failed at, however, was not the romantic; it was the relationship with her child - the failures of which ran throughout the three series. (Wallender, too, struggles with his relationships to his father and his daughter, and Rebus's daughter is a key character in Ian Rankin's novels.)

From Miss Peabody's blog
The first episode of Hinterland not only hints at the difficulties engaging with family on the part of the male lead, the first episode is about a children's home and the struggles of children to come to terms with the failure of care - neglect as well as actual abuse, which they experienced there. The week after Hinterland's first episode aired an inquiry opened into failures on the part of children's care in Northern Ireland. Senior Counsel Christine Smith called the inquiry: "a human story about how a society treated its most vulnerable members - its children". She said, "this inquiry will examine the soul of Northern Ireland in that period".

The second episode of Hinterland gives us a story of families intertwined around land and legacies, relationships of all kinds: parental, marital, gone horribly wrong when people feel they have not inherited appropriately. What we have is a set of programmes that is no longer about men/women - humanity and the machine age. These are programmes about children, families. They are about sexuality/kinship in its widest (I would say Foucauldian) form, rather than the narrow sex/sexuality forming human identity (Freud).

Hinterland is even more than that. I moved to South Wales a decade ago. I was a bit grumpy, because I knew that once I settled here I would probably never move to Scotland where I was born after all. I remember traveling on the train not long after moving here, along the Severn Estuary past Chepstow Castle. I saw a low green hill with a twisted thorn tree on it. I saw the small green hillock as if it were the coiled Celtic emblem of the land of Dylan Thomas, the land whose literary genius Gerard Manley Hopkins struggled to celebrate in the cold English tongue. I knew I would stay.

Port Talbot chemical plant.
Strung on the string of the double story-lines of Hinterland: the murder mystery, the detective's personal story (still a mystery at this point), are beautifully filmed shots of the West Welsh landscape. Sometimes dour, sometimes homely; these include the hills with the wind turbines turning, a level-crossing, a long lovely view across Cardigan Bay seen from the verandah of a shabby block of council flats, a grey chapel set like a dull semi-precious stone against the hills. They are not romanticised with the signs of human activity excised from them; they are Wales as I often see it. The industrial parks, the green hills, the sun setting over the sea with the Port Talbot steelworks in the foreground like a modern-day Mordor.

There we are then, the ethos of the 21st century encapsulated in a new detective story from the oldest British colony. You can't yet see Hinterland in Baker Street, it's only being shown in Wales (although Danish tv has bought it). Instead of the modern Manichean mayhem of the battle of the sexes, here is a sensitive allegory exploring wider issues of family and belonging embedded in cameo shots of a human landscape.

(I just want to add, that it was after I wrote this that I saw producer Ed Talfan's blog on how the stories in Hinterland emerged from the Welsh landscape - she says smugly.)


  1. It reminds me a little of the American SciFi/Fantasy series "Warehouse 13". 'H.G.Wells' turns out to be a tortured scientific genius who lost her (yes, her) child in the 19th century, went mad (obviously) and came back to destroy the world in the 21st century. Later she turned to the side of good but I always thought it a stroke of writerly genius to play on the ambiguity of the initials "H.G." (H stands for Helena by the way).

    Also what about "Elementary"? The US version where recovering drug addict Holmes is played by Johnny Lee Miller and his minder companion Watson by Lucy Liu. Now that's an update.

    1. http://www.starmedia.us/imagenes/2013/07/elementary-sherlok-holmes.jpg

      NO! I hadn't heard of Elementary, although I still don't believe it can have been as bad as this episode of Sherlock - gah! xxx