Sherlock: A Case of Evil was a 2002 made-for-television film that pits a twentysomething Sherlock Holmes (James D’Arcy) against his nemesis, Moriarty and I will state from the outset that, of the few portrayals of a younger Sherlock Holmes, James D’Arcy’s is, by far, the best. Everything about his performance (including the “look” which I consider to be indispensable) is pitch-perfect.
A Case of Evil begins with the upshot of an investigation that has Holmes pursuing Moriarty through London; there is a confrontation, Holmes shoots Moriarty and the body falls into the river. The effect of this – as Moriarty is known to be a master criminal – is to make an instant celebrity of the young detective and Holmes revels in fame, and it’s perks. Depicting Holmes as an attention-loving and arrogant young luminary (when a policeman asks for his surname, he replies. “Holmes.” [pause] “With an L”) is an interesting notion and, in its way, Canonical. Early in their Canonical relationship, Watson is irked by Holmes’s “bumptious style of conversation”, and looks upon the detective’s swift deductions as “brag and bounce”; when Holmes explains his chain of reasoning, he is “pleased at [Watson’s] evident surprise and admiration”.
We see a hint of the self-conceit in the earliest – chronologically, speaking – case, The Gloria Scott, when the college-age Holmes forms a friendship with fellow student who is “the very opposite to me in most respects”, and pays a visit to the young man and his father. Urged to demonstrate his deductive powers, Holmes leads with the observation that is guaranteed to shock and impress. In A Case of Evil, we have the same hint of swagger, and the same readiness to perform his deductive parlor tricks.
What Piers Ashworth’s screenplay posits (some odd casting and plotting choices notwithstanding*) is that, as a young man, Sherlock Holmes was engaging, vain, energetic, and emotionally susceptible. As the story plays out, we learn that Moriarty’s “death” and the case that precipitated it had been a ruse. In flashbacks, we see that Holmes has a personal grudge against Moriarty’s, and the resolution of the case costs a young woman, of whom Holmes has become quite fond, her life. The screenplay endorses the theory that the Sherlockian self-control, aloofness, detachment toward women are not fundamental traits, but the assumed, an armor against suffering. Even in the later cases, we often witness emotion and reason at odds; more than once, Watson comments on his friend’s vanity and reserve, thoughtlessness and chivalry, his impatience and generosity. Like Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet, Holmes is “so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice.”
While the script does a very credible job in formulating a young Sherlock Holmes, it does tend to stray in other areas. Watson, here, is a rather unsophisticated police surgeon (and there seems to be a confusion about the era’s distinction between surgeon and doctor), to whom Holmes is introduced in the course of an investigation; yet, it has Holmes already living at Baker Street. (Sherlockians will recognize the inaccuracy). There is no sense that Watson is a man of worldly experience; there are, however, the glimpses of “pawky humor”, as when Holmes observed that there is “something abnormal about [a corpse’s] windpipe”, and Watson replies, “Yes. Normally, he’d be using it to breathe.”
The humor extends to the script’s wry social jabs that offer “a distinct touch”. Holmes is hired by a wealthy opium importer whose clients are being killed off. Holmes – whose drugs of choice here are alcohol, including absinthe, and, of course, tobacco – despises both the client and drug use, an abhorrence that is explained in flashbacks. The gentleman rationalizes his occupation: opiates, he claims, are a “social necessity” for war veterans who have been introduced to morphine at battlefield hospitals and who continue to have “a taste for the drug” when they return.
Moriarty, who is at the root of the murders, scorns the importer for “building a criminal empire on a product that isn’t even illegal”, predicting that the real profits will come when drugs are prohibited, and that “They’re going to love it over there” (i.e., in America). Conversely, Watson, disparages Holmes’s use of tobacco, predicting that cigarettes will soon be banned by the government, while opium and cocaine, having medicinal uses, will always be legal.
Added to the interesting social landscape is the pulp reporter who dogs Holmes for headlines with all the tenacity of a paparazzo, shrugging off Lestrade’s challenge to his accuracy with, “We can always print a retraction next week.” Young Holmes is an assiduous collector of his own press clippings until the account assembled in his scrapbook becomes too personal and painful a record. Then, he decides, “I’d rather trust posterity to that diary of yours, Watson.”
*Re: the odd casting choices. Vincent D’Onofrio is Moriarty. Richard E. Grant (who was always on my Sherlock shortlist) is Mycroft. Perhaps they should have considered reversing the roles?
And which Austen character would have enjoyed A Case of Evil? It is hard to believe that any of the young ladies of high sensibility – Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse, Maria and Julia Bertram, the Musgrove sisters or even the frivolous Charlotte Palmer – could resist this handsome, dashing version of Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps Jane herself who, in one of her letters, writes of having “the dignity of dropping out my mother’s Laudanum” would have wondered at Moriarty’s notion that the such a common remedy would ever be made illegal.
And three degrees of Austen? James D’Arcy had the starring role in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (2001) with Tom Hollander, who was Mr. Collins in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.