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“The Hound of the Baskervilles”

23 Feb 2017Film Essays

This paper is a review of the BBC movie “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, (2003), starring Richard Roxburgh as Sherlock Holmes, Ian Hart as Dr Watson, Richard E. Grant as Stapleton. The movie is a dramatization of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel of the same title, first published as a monthly serial in The Strand Magazine in 1901. The paper proposes to discuss the following elements of the movie, as outlined hereafter: The storyline, in which it will give a basic breakdown of what occurs in the movie – enough to let the reader know whether or not he or she wants to see this movie. What makes the movie interesting, what makes it one that a person can watch time and time again?

The dramatization and roles played by the main actors will also be discussed, and will show how each adds to the atmosphere created by the film. This will include whether the actor has successfully played the character, and also what role the character has had with regard to the whole film. Another element that the paper will look at will be the visual imagery used and the effects gained by this as well as the overall impression left by the movie. This aspect will include whether the period has been accurately portrayed.

The BBC’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is a good night’s viewing. One of the most famous Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s a thriller in which Holmes faces the beast of Dartmoor in Yorkshire.Holmes is approached to secure the safety of young Sir Henry Baskerville, who has inherited the estate of Baskerville Hall on the moor after the death of his uncle Sir Charles Baskerville in somewhat uncertain circumstances. The legend of the huge killer dog which haunts the moors combined with the chilling thrill of the vast expanse of desolate moor and marshland, and the fact that the older Sir Baskerville has passed away under suspicious circumstances is enough to whet Holmes’s appetite. He accepts the case with alacrity and yet is to spend almost half of the movie not present at all – he sends Dr Watson as a “bodyguard” to Baskerville Hall with Sir Henry, and it is Watson who conducts most of the investigation in the initial stages, sending with great dedication detailed and regular reports to Holmes, who he believes to still be in Baker Street. And most certainly investigation needs to be done. Is there really a large dog out on the moor, ready to kill at any turn? The blood curdling wails that are heard on the moor certainly suggest that something eerie is out there. What secrets do the housekeeper and her husband the butler hold? Is Stapleton really just an anthropologist as he states? Is his rather disturbing sister innocent? Why does Dr Mortimer not give the full truth, even though he is the one who has asked Holmes to take the case? What part does the escaped convict have to play in it all? Who is the man hiding out on the moor? All these questions and more are answered as the plot unfolds to a thrilling climax. The film will be liked by those who know Sherlock Holmes and love him, and by those that are new to his adventures. If you are a lover of action then this is for you – the film moves quickly along, punctuated by Holmes’ and Watson’s observations. I find that I can watch this movie time and time again and each time I pick up some previously unobserved detail, which you now realize has a part to play in the outcome.

The story in itself is by no means classic Holmes. For one thing, as already stated, the detective himself spends half of the movie absent and leaves Watson in charge (perhaps to lengthen the story, which is the first full book length Holmes story?). For another thing, Watson is kept in the dark, and in other stories this is not the case - readers of other Holmes stories often use scraps fed to Watson to try and solve the mystery themselves. But it’s a good, suspense thrilled movie and is well worth watching.

However, as happened with myself, lovers of Holmes may not be too willing to accept Richard Roxburgh in the part. This is not a problem those who are not acquainted with the super sleuth will have – because those of us who are have formed a picture in our heads of what Holmes should look like. Therefore, you might say that any actor would have a hard time being accepted in the role. I did find Roxburgh’s accent to be irritating and again not how I would have expected Holmes to talk. Rather then getting an Australian with a put on accent to play the part, I would have preferred to see somebody like Pierce Brosnan in the role. And I would have liked to see the classical pipe and deerstalker hat that we associate with Holmes more than I saw evidence of the drug habit, which I believe should have been left out of the movie. In Holmes’ day, such substances were legal and available from the corner drugstore – in this day and age, they are not, and this sets a bad example and even seems to imply that some of Holmes’ genius is due in part TO the habit.

But Roxburgh did carry the role in an authoritative way and a rather large forehead exacerbates the description that has been applied to Holmes in the past – that of a “disembodied mind”. However, the movie does show that he can also be a man of action – particularly where he manhandles the cab driver to get information regarding the man’s customer. This is not something I remember in the books and was a bit taken aback to see this side of Holmes displayed here. Roxburgh does not bring any of the quirks or mannerisms to the part that we would expect of Holmes. There is no doubt in my mind that a more convincing, stronger Holmes would have turned a good movie into a great one.

I liked Ian Hart as Watson. He played the part as solid, dependable, reliable, and also quite intensely human – a person to whom we can relate in the company of the clever Holmes. The part of Watson is a foil to that of Holmes, and Hart brought this off well. Without such a person, the viewer could end up feeling rather stupid, especially in this particular Holmes story when much is revealed right at the very end. The humanity of Watson is very important and is well displayed in various scenes in this, particularly when Watson stands up to Holmes and instructs him not to keep him in the dark. There are two classics of English literature who I think Hart is ideal as – one, the ever dependable Watson, the other the solidly reliable Dr James Herriot the veterinary surgeon.

Richard E Grant is excellent as Stapleton, although there are some who feel that he would have been a better Holmes than Roxburgh. Stapleton portrays himself as an innocent, merely a resident of the moors with nothing more to hide, although, as with everyone in this movie there is more to him than meets the eye. Watson picks up on this secrecy almost immediately upon meeting him and adopts a manner of reserve. This in turn is noticed by Stapleton who praises Watson on his caution. The secrecy surrounding the character is added to upon Watson’s meeting Stapleton’s sister, who alludes to things and then reverts to normal conversation in the presence of her brother. Grant’s attitude and manner of speaking helps to add to this air of mystery, as do surreptitious glances that he casts about him.

The production values are wonderful, the costumes striking and the locations authentic-looking from start to finish. The widescreen format is used to full effect here. Never before has the moor looked as atmospheric or menacing in any film version and the opening, which alternates between shots of testimony at the inquest into Sir Charles’ death and his post-mortem, is a wonderful sequence that sets the gritty tone for the film. Baker Street, represented by Canning Street in Liverpool, is an extraordinary exterior that looks perfect. There is no doubt about it; this is the best looking version of The Hound ever to be made for television (Prepolec, 2006). The hound itself is huge, intimidating and scary – a mixture between animatronics and CGI, and the chilling atmosphere around it is enhanced to great effect when it makes its’ first physical appearance at a séance being conducted by Dr Mortimer’s wife.

This is all in all a satisfying, entertaining film. Don’t miss it on SABC 7 at 8pm on Saturday!

References

  • BBC Worldwide Ltd, 2003, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, Screenplay by Allan Cubitt from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Directed by David Attwood, Produced by Christopher Hall, in association with The Isle of Man Film Commission, starring Richard Roxburgh as Sherlock Holmes, Ian Hart as Dr Watson, Richard E Grant as Stapleton, with John Nettles, Geraldine James, Matt Day, Neve McIntosh, Ron Cook and Liza Tarbuck
  • Prepolec, Charles, 2004, “Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles” http://www.bakerstreetdozen.com/roxhoun.html

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