Igor Maslennikov concludes his Sherlock Holmes cycle with his most ambitious adaptation, weaving together no less than four of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales into an epic film of spies and secrets. Set against the backdrop of increasing tensions between European nations, The Twentieth Century Approaches sees Holmes and Watson return from apparent retirement to investigate foreign counterfeiters, track down diplomatic papers and submarine plans, and thwart German agents working on British soil. Maslennikov contrasts Holmes’s highly personal and methodical approach to his investigations against the accelerating and arousing technological advances of mass media to produce an insightful and reflexive view of a changing era.
* * *
See the complete Episode 1 here at Film Annex.
See the complete Episode 2 here, at Film Annex.
The Twentieth Century Approaches adapts, in order, “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb,” “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” and “His Last Bow.” Maslennikov removes the chronological distance between these stories and amends “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” to compliment the remaining tales of spies and covert operations (making the counterfeiting scheme of “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” a foreign plot to undermine British currency). The film opens with a young engineer, Victor Hatherley, nearly losing his life while consulting in confidence on a damaged hydraulic press. Hatherley loses his thumb during his escape and eventually arrives at the door of Dr. Watson and Mary Morstan for treatment. Aroused by the suspicious circumstances described by Hatherley, Watson travels to a remote coastal home where a retired Sherlock Holmes lives under an alias. Together, Holmes and Watson discover the location of the press, having now burned down, and determine that the press was used to produce counterfeit coins. From there, the duo consult on the disappearance of diplomatic correspondence from a government dispatch box, investigate the death of a young government clerk and the loss 3 missing pages of submarine plans, and break up a German operation funneling confidential British intelligence back to the continent, this last adventure returning them to Holmes’s retired identity and explaining his unusual behaviour near the beginning of episode 1.
This final entry in the Sherlock Holmes cycle has a decidedly different flavour than the previous episodes. While still rooted in mysterious murders and blackmail plots, the stakes of The Twentieth Century Approaches are elevated beyond threatened inheritances, marital scandal, and criminal enrichment. Holmes and Watson now find themselves preserving the national security in an ever-shrinking world. Maslennikov represents these changes with a host of amendments to the aesthetic of the series. Gone is the opening credit footage of hidden messages and decoded symbologies, replaced with early film footage of bustling streets, motor vehicles, and military parades, the mechanical reproduction of these scenes emphasized by tinting, visual effects, and negative images. Other details proliferate – Mycroft’s office is no longer solemn enclave of silence but now a hub telecommunications including telegraphs, phones, ticker tape machines, and other technologies, Watson and Holmes ride around on a motorcycle with a sidecar rather than in a horse-drawn coach, state secrets are smuggled out of the country by airplane. There is a clamour and a pressure to this world that is not present in the other films, invading the domestic space of Watson’s marital home and the pastoral comfort of Holmes’s rural life. Yet while Maslennikov portrays the elevated arousal of life at the tail end of classical modernity as tense and dangerous (what with the threat of the continent falling into war), he also finds the playful side of this changing world in an ostentatious conclusion to the series, recasting the recurring final image of Holmes and Watson sitting facing the fire to them sitting facing a film of a couple dancing together, the sound of the projector starting and running making the technology obvious and present. It is a new era and a new medium, one that would both end their adventures as originally conceived and perpetuate their legend forevermore.
The enduring appeal of Doyle’s consulting detective to Russian audiences has existed since Doyle’s tales were first published. “Sherlock Kholms,” as he was first called in Russian translations, is something of an aberration to the tastes of Russian crime/detective fiction. Louise McReynolds notes that Russian audiences typically distinguished between formal legal authority (the Tsarist regime at the time when Kholms first began to circulate among Russian readers) and moral justice. Russian crime fiction fans were less concerned with discovering who did it and more interested in why they did it. Popular tales often involved an investigator attempting to unpack the hidden back-story to why an individual committed a particular crime and eventually letting them go without formal punishment as the circumstances of their crime morally justified their actions and/or the private consequences of their crime having been sufficiently punitive. Doyle’s stories are mysteries outside of the popular mold of Russian crime fiction, but his consulting detective had special appeal to Russian readers. Holmes’s independence from legal authority and his emphasis on helping the aggrieved rather than punishing the guilty set him apart. Maslennikov consciously appreciated this aspect of the character, stating, “Sometimes Holmes prefers to put on airs, but at the same time he has self-irony, which is a sign of an open and kind heart.” The director further comments, “The writer contrasted him with the official police system of Scotland Yard, because Sherlock Holmes’s main feature is to help. To not only give punishment.”
For many, Maslennikov’s cycle of films is the high-water mark for televisual adaptations of Doyle’s stories, embraced for their fidelity to the letter and spirit of these famous works. They are purportedly the preferred versions of the Queen and Vasily Livanov was made an honourary Member of the Order of the British Empire for his excellent performances and his promotion of British culture globally. Livanov was present at the 2007 unveiling of Andrey Orlov’s statue of Holmes and Watson, located at the riverside of the British Embassy in Moscow. Orlov relied on Paget’s original drawings of the pair, but closer attention reveals a decided resemblance to Livanov and Vitaly Solomin. So beloved are these films that they continue to air on Russian television, yet their circulation outside of Russia (and Britain) is so limited as to make them nearly unknown. These titles desperately need to circulate with greater ease and in better quality, and an Eclipse set would provide an affordable introduction of these treasures to North American audiences. The worthiness of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson is elementary, so let’s all hope a wacky “E” might someday arrive at the Russian doorstep of 221B Baker Street.