Sherlok Kholms (i doktor Vatson)

A Russian Sherlock Holmes? Or, to put it bluntly, a Soviet Sherlock Holmes? That doesn't sound very promising.

Surprisingly enough it works. Jolly well, in fact.

It is Conan Doyle in a charmingly Chekovian setting; the pace is leisurely, there's no hurry, there's never any hurry, and the mood is gentle and dreamy and unmistakably Slavic. Mrs. Hudson doesn't serve the tea from a samovar and they don't take it from tall glasses, not quite, and they do drink whisky instead of vodka, or at least profess so to do; yet one rather expects the next client to walk in to be, not Miss Morstan or Dr. Mortimer, but Arkadina or Trigorin. And the hapless detective in desperate need of Sherlock's assistance not to be Lestrade but Porfiry Petrovich.

St. Petersburg does not a London make - a Leningrad even less so. Still, the odd thing is, somehow it doesn't disturb one. Not a bit. Having all these obviously Imperial Russian and supremely Baltic buildings as the backdrop of Holmes and his investigations just adds to the atmosphere, making it even more cosy. And the Neva really does present an acceptable and suitably foggy substitute for the Thames.

The core of the piece is Vitaly Solomin's Watson - a starry-eyed and emotional creature who weeps silently when he thinks he's lost the love of his life, but who's brave and trustworthy when the need arises. Vasily Livanov's Holmes is acerbic and quirky and softer by far than most of his western colleagues, though not too soft. There is steel in him, and a lot of humour too. He's quite the merry prankster and really a child at heart. Which is interesting and does justice to Doyle. Holmes is indeed the imperfect man: in some ways over-evolved, in others still a child.

The scripts are usually quite dependable and true to the original tales, sometimes fusing together two stories. The first episode starts off as A Study in Scarlet and ends up as The Speckled Band. It works, A Study being such an uneven piece with the dreadful back-story spoiling all the fun in the end. Better just scrap it. The Agra Treasure is basically The Sign of Four with A Scandal in Bohema thrown in somewhere in the middle - probably to balance the thing. In the first story Watson falls in love, in the second Holmes does, which in its way works out quite nicely. There is one serious drawback. The script focuses so intensely on love that the crime of Major Sholto and Captain Morstan is never explained. Nor are the original circumstances of the Agra treasure and how it fell into the hands of Jonathan Small and his companions. In this version Jonathan Small is just an escaped convict who turns up in London claiming that the treasure belongs to him and his fellows. A bit shabby that.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is an odd little piece. For me it steers too near downright parody, especially in the form of Nikita Mikhalkov's Sir Henry Baskerville. The relation between Sir Henry and Barrymore is pure comedy and sabotages the dramatic element of the plot. It becomes embarrassingly campy. The same goes, basically, for Dr. Mortimer. Apart from that it isn't a bad version of the book even if there is precious little suspense or even dramaturgy. Not glorious but adequate. The setting is eerie and a bit off, though not necessarily in a bad way. But Devon it ain't. Nor a mire.

The Final Problem works extremely well and the shots of the raging waterfall are stunning. Moriarty is icy and sadistic and has a frightening hump. Sometimes he's over the top but by and large it works. Moriarty's henchman who's always around shadowing Holmes and Watson is a lurid cross between Mr. Hyde and Lon Chaney's Wolf Man. The King of Blackmail (based on The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton) is a delightfully reverential version of the original story. Good stuff.

By and large the Russian Sherlock Holmes series is a little gem and truly a breath of fresh air after the occasionally over-heated and sometimes suffocatingly histrionic Granada series. Its strengths, however, are its weaknesses. Its strong on mood, atmosphere, leisurely pacing. That means that there isn't always time to develop the plot as it ought to be developed. So things have to be cut or ignored. Important things. But the things it does it usually does remarkably well and sincerely. And with its heart in the right place.

I especially like the neoclassical semi-Prokofievian or mock-Stravinskian theme music by Vladimir Dashkevitch. Somehow it manages to fuse Victorian London with Imperial St. Petersburg and set the mood perfectly, not forgetting a slight measure of healthy irony.

Oh, back to The Final Problem. I'd previously heard some radio plays with John Gielgud as Holmes and Ralph Richardson as his Watson. Not bad, I quite like the pair even if Gielgud sometimes may come across as a bit academic and prissy and Richardson occasionally half sounds as if he's having a nod at his club. The Final Problem is hugely interesting because Moriarty is played by none other than the suave and urbane Orson Welles, who pours a out a sound dose of venom and concealed menace with each and every one of his softly spoken words. He's the real star of the piece. The more genteel he sounds, the more dangerous one senses that he is. Which makes Orson Welles's Moriarty very dangerous indeed.

On the face of it Gielgud and Welles are an unlikely couple of mortal foes. Actually seeing them struggle to the death would probably convince no one. Hearing them do it works beautifully. And Welles makes such a lovely villain. He's much better as Moriarty than as Holmes. The effect of the play is somewhat tempered by Richardson in the end. Reading his eulogy he sounds a bit as if he were reading about a cricket match in which he wasn't particularly interested.

But Welles's Moriarty - ah 'tis a rare and beautiful thing indeed!


Alexander S said...

Hello from Russia :)

I have read your review about Russian Sherlock Holmes series with a great interest. I completely agree with the view point on the film as very good worked one you did. Perhaps, I'd disagree with some remarks - but it doesn't change a whole picture.

Though, I'd like to elaborate something.
The series have been screened not only in St Petersburg, but also in Baltic Republics and their capitals (Riga /1st, 5th films/ and Tallinn /3rd - Hound/).

As for the film soundtrack...

An interesting detail. Film composer Vladimir Dashkevich likes to tell the story how two music critics discuss to one another concerning the Sherlock Holmes film soundtrack. The one critic confirmed that Dashkivich's music theme based on Henry Purcell's motives. The second said that it's based on Benjamin Britten's music.

When Dashkevich responsed them that it is his author's music, they were aggrieved very much :)

Actually, Vladimir Dashkevish is a excellent composer of styllezed musics.

I'd like to ask your consent as for my translation this review into Russian language. I'm sure that Russian bloggers-Sherlockians would read your text with not less interest than I did.

here is my Live Journal


btw, here is a good Sherlockian resourse generally in Russia (unfortunately, not all pages are translated into English yet)
this site is devoted to Russian Sherlock Holmes series
etc :)

PS said...

Hello Alexander and thank you for your interesting comment. Please feel free to use my text.

So, were all the city bits filmed in Leningrad and the country bits elsewhere or did Riga and Tallinn or some other city also "play" London?

Apparently then the rock formations in The Hound were Estonian? Nice to know. What about the awesome "Reichenbach Falls" - do you know were that was filmed?

Yes there is indeed a Purcellesque stately grandeur in Dashkevich's splendid fanfare, now that you mention it, especially when the orchestra and the trumpet kick in, but I cannot hear any direct loans from anyone. Influence maybe, but no direct loans. The warm Slavic irony is unmistakeable. Is Dashkevich, by the way, a well known composer in Russia? Do you know what other music he has composed?

I shall take a look at your journal and the Russian Holmes pages with great interest, thank you for the links.

Peter said...

The "Reichenbach Falls" were filmed in Georgia / Abchasia, and the waterfall is called "Gegskiy Waterfall" (or, alternatively, "Circassian Waterfall").

Peter said...

About Vladimir Dashkevich:

He is a famous Russian composer for his collaboration with the poet Yuli Kim, as well as for his film music, mostly however, for his "Sherlock Holmes" and "Bumbarash" movie scores.

PS said...

Thank you Peter, I shall have to try to get hold of music by Dashkevich. And wonderful to know where "Reichenbach" was filmed.

Alexander S said...

Hello again :)

As for Vladimir Dashkevich's music to Sherlock Holmes series, you can download it here:

you are selecting the link, then you see new page with a words "Чтобы скачать запрашиваемый вами файл, нажмите на ссылку" (translation: press on the link to download a file you ask)

Dashkevich composed the music for more than 200 movies. For example, a musical film "Pippi Longstocking" (1984)


here are videos from it:

etc :)

Concerning Reichenbach Falls, Peter responsed right...
yet I can offer the link on meontioned site 221b.ru - on Geography section

in Russian only, alas

yes, in generally the locations were filmed in St Petersburg and its suburbs, plus Riga, Tallinn

I have to say your film review on Holmes series (my translation) had a good commotion. Many bloggers replied that they agree mostly... although there are some disagreements with your view in several points. In particularly, concerning an interpretation of Dr. Mortimer in The Hound.
Yet people were amauzed a little with comparission Dashkevish's soundtrack with Stravinsky's music etc.
Overall, Russian bloggers were enjoyed very much with the reading of the text.

In your review I didn't see the mentions of the final films of Livanov's series - "XX Century begins" (based on Engineer's Thumb, Second Stain, bruce Partington Plans etc). Among Russian Sherlockians (and the usual viewers) suppose this film is more doubtful than The Hound.

PS said...

Thank you very much, Alexander, very nice to hear.

Dashkevich appears indeed to have been quite productive, it'll be interesting to hear what his other music is like. By the way, when I compared the theme to Stravinsky I of course meant the neoclassical Stravinsky with his ironically mock Baroque and whimsically mock Tchaikovsky compositions.

I still find Dr. Mortimer played with too much comic effect, but I understand that others may find him more to their liking. It's all a question of what one expects, I suppose.

Unfortunately I haven't seen the last episode, only the ones I mentioned. As I've always liked spy stories, I hope I'll some day run into it, even if it is a bit controversial.

Alexander S said...

Three years ago I have translated Igor Maslennikov's magazine article "DEAR SHERLOCK HOLMES’S AND DOCTOR WATSON’S FRIENDS ", and posted the English version in my Live Journal.

Here is

Perhaps, you'll be interested to know what film director thinks about his creation and its history.

PS said...

Good link, Alexander, many thanks.

buddy2blogger said...

Great post about the Russian adaptation with Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin!

Vasily Livanov is my all time favorite Holmes!

"occasionally over-heated and sometimes suffocatingly histrionic Granada series" -> very good summation of the Granada series. Brett is quite good, though he is overly dramatic and his performance becomes even more neurotic as his health worsened towards the end of the series.

Livanov on the other hand plays Holmes as the perfect English Gentleman. Exactly the way, Sir Doyle described in the canon :)

Superb discussion with Alexander. I have visited his blog sometime back. He always has something new and informative to say about this classic adaptation.