Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles

| February 3, 2003

This story is probably the most popular and at least one of the most filmed Sherlock Holmes stories ever: a quick search on IMDb turns up 10 versions, starting in 1920. So each new rendition has to endure the unpleasant process of being compared to all of the versions that preceded it. The 1988 Granada TV version, which has been digitally re-mastered and released on DVD by MPI Home Video, has the advantage of featuring the definitive Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett. The rest of the casting is also a good enough fit and the direction is creditable, but as a whole, this version of the classic falls far short of its true potential.
Since the most striking characteristic of the whole Granada Sherlock Holmes series is the remarkable Brett, any discussion of The Hound has to focus mostly on him. As in all the other films and serials, Brett becomes the great sleuth with utmost ease. It is hard to think of him as anyone else, a fact that probably hurt his career. For example, the equally superb David Suchet played Hercule Poirot to such perfection that directors have had a tough time finding other suitable roles for him. Brett imbues the basically melodramatic persona of Holmes with a quiet intensity, which compels the audience to hang onto his every word with bated breath. We are terrified of this formidable intellect, but at the same time, we cannot look away. Brett carries this characterization of Holmes into The Hound, but here he gets much less screen time than in the other films. Rumor has it that Brett was already quite ill by this time–he died in 1995 at the relatively young age of 51–and so the interpretation of the story for this version was constrained by Brett’s availability. The only good thing to come out of this state of affairs is that we get to see more of the excellent Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson. Hardwicke plays Watson as an ordinary educated man who acts as a foil for the brilliant but eccentric Holmes, an interpretation which is most consistent with Conan Doyle’s descriptions. The temptation to make Dr. Watson a caricature is apparently great–witness the buffoonish Dr. Watson presented by Nigel Bruce in the 1930s and 1940s–so Hardwicke’s dogged persistence at keeping the good doctor a real, three-dimensional person is to be commended.
The problem with this version of The Hound is that the atmosphere of suspense and lingering evil, constructed with such care in the original story, fails to come through. Legend has it that the Baskervilles have been cursed with evil in the form of a great hound which roams the vast moor surrounding their estate. Sir Henry, the young heir, arrives from America, ready to confront the curse with the help of the best mind in all London. Conan Doyle’s story is an intricately woven tapestry of threads of various colors, and any successful interpretation of the story must acknowledge the richness of each strand. There is a brutal murderer running loose on the moor. Barrymore and his wife, the caretakers of Baskerville Hall, are grimly mysterious. The Baskervilles’ neighbor, Stapleton, behaves erratically, especially when it comes to his sister, the beautiful Beryl. How do all of these tales hang together? What is the connection? Director Brian Mills fails to answer any of these questions adequately. He switches from subplot to subplot with jerky movements, and the complex psychology of Conan Doyle’s characters is not analyzed or even exposited to any satisfactory degree. In fact, even the 1939 version of The Hound, where the extremely inept Basil Rathbone stars as Holmes and Nigel Bruce puts in a slightly-more-decent-than-usual performance as Watson, evokes the spirit of the story much better than this 1988 version.
Having said that, the extraordinary performance of the cast is what keeps this version of The Hound from going under. Neil Duncan as Dr. Mortimer who first brings the case to Holmes’ attention, James Faulkner as the slightly sinister neighbor Stapleton, Fiona Gillies as his sister Beryl, and Ronald Pickup as the butler Barrymore all contribute to try to make the story as multi-textured as possible, given the flightiness of the direction. Even Kristoffer Tabori who as Sir Henry Baskerville looks a little too amused for his own good, seems in sync with the story and with the rest of the cast; he has just arrived from America after all, he is allowed to be a little flaky The settings are visually spectacular–the legendary English mist, the forbidding but elegant stone mansions, the bleak moor which stretches for miles on end–which makes it doubly disappointing that the director could not use all these excellent ingredients to come up with a better product.
If you’re looking for an enjoyable movie, the strength of the original story and the acting ability of the cast headed by the one and only Jeremy Brett will make The Hound an extremely decent choice. However, if you’ve seen Brett in action in any of the short stories from The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, you’re going to be quite disappointed.

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