When my wife looked over my piece on Enola Holmes there was something at the end that caught her attention:
“But if they (the writers) had let her first love die… If they had allowed Enola to fail. I would have had to have given it a higher rating. It would have made this a much better film. It would have made Enola, alone. This would also have given her character a catalyst moving forward. She had failed once and massively when it really counted at a very young age. Very well, it will never happen again.“
“Like in Young Sherlock Holmes?” Asked Lady Cataline.
I was suddenly drenched by a wave of unexpected nostalgia. “Yes, just like that.”
I hadn’t even thought about that film when I was watching Enola Holmes. But now that the subject has come up, the parallels are pretty obvious. Out of idle curiosity, I scrolled through Amazon’s video selection and saw that Young Sherlock Holmes was included with Prime, so I hit Play.
Film opens in Victorian London. A well-to-do older gent is looking at the menu that is posted in the window of a restaurant. * A mysterious cloaked and hooded figure is stalking him. When he leans over a blowgun is raised and the old fellow is stung. Then he goes into the restaurant.
Later he is served an appropriately 19th-century revolting looking pheasant with feet and tail feathers still attached. When he sticks a fork in, the bird’s roasted head pops out and screeches at him. Then it starts flailing at him while he screams in horror at his baked-zombie dinner. The other diners only see him screaming for apparently no reason. The hallucination fades and he rushes out of the restaurant. Once back at his apartment, the hallucinations return and he ends up hurling himself out of his window, to his death. A gentle mist of snow covers the body on the cobblestone street. Which was a nice touch.
The opening credits completed the mood that the prelude had set by having the shadow of the cloaked figure moving alone the cobblestones, making an obvious shout out to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes films. The backbone of this film is the soundtrack. Bruce Broughton composed the perfect accompaniment for the on-screen action. It is a major component of this film.
At the end of the credits we see:
“The following story is original and is not specifically based on the exploits of Sherlock Holmes is described in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.”
Seriously! How fucking hard was that Enola Holmes? Was it so impossible to offer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the slightest bit of respect as the creator?
After the credits we see a young man in a carriage wearing glasses, he has slightly round cheeks, and you get the impression he was probably going to go to fat early in life. He has a sour expression and you get the feeling his lifes’s ambition is to become an old foggie as fast as possible. In short, he’s a young Nigel Bruce. His appearance is accompanied by a voice-over. Which is drastically preferable to breaking the 4th wall in every way available to it. The voice is clearly an older man probably in late middle age recounting the adventures that he had when he was a boy. Young Watson is having to switch schools in mid-term because his old school is closed. Snow is coming down on a scene in a Victorian London street, letting you know it’s January.
Watson is naturally apprehensive about going from one English boarding school to yet another. Doubtless dreading whatever initiation will be performed upon the new boy. He sets down his luggage on his bed next to another boy who is playing the violin rather badly. It is. of course, Holmes.
Young Sherlock looks over Watson and goes over his entire biography just by looking at him. This is perfectly acceptable for a Sherlock Holmes story in fact it’s required. With introductions made, they head off to class where we meet something a little unusual in a Sherlock Holmes story, a love interest. Anyone familiar with Sherlock is leery about extending the girl any kind of affection because there is no Elizabeth in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. And yes, there was no point in getting attached to her.
A short time later we see she is being courted by the school bully and oh my crap it’s Malfoy. Well, Malfoy’s stereotype anyway. It wasn’t like Rowling invented it. The English Boarding School Bully is pretty much a required trope if you are doing the EBS anyway.
Following that we are introduced to the love interest’s uncle, a retired headmaster named Waxflatter. A genius eccentric who has built a manually powered ornithopter, (which incidentally has a better flight time than the Wright Brothers had for their first try at Kitty Hawk). Waxflatter is wearing a Deerstalker hat and Inverness coat. I wonder if that’s going to mean something later?
The next sympathetic instructor we meet is of course the villain of the piece. A young good looking, slightly swarthy, fencing instructor who has made a special favorite of Sherlock. Yes, it’s exactly who you think it is but at least they save the reveal until after the credits.
We get a few scenes of life at school. Malfoy-clone is a bullying Alpha. Watson is a bullied Gamma. And Holmes is the introverted Sigma. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up Sherlock answers, “I never want to be alone.” While staring out the window at Elizabeth.
Sadly, in this iteration, Watson is a little bit thick. That’s because this movie is really more of a tribute to the series of films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce than the actual stories. Understandably so, because when this film came out it was more likely that the vast majority of people in the audience had formed their paradigm of Holmes and Watson from those movies instead of Doyle’s writing. This includes the older members of Generation X. Martin Freeman’s iteration of Watson in Sherlock is frankly a much closer to the one Doyle created.
We see our second act of skullduggery; a minister is hit by another blowgun dart and he chases-the-dragon into the next world.
Cut-scene and the schoolboys are crying, “Holmes is going to solve the case!” It’s a red herring. The case in question is, where did the Malfoy-Clone hide the school trophy? And it is here that the film’s weaknesses start to emerge. I will give credit where it’s due. Enola Holmes came up with much better clues for its Sherlock to find. There was a lot more emphasis on making it look like young Holmes was being a detective than his actually being a detective. There are lots of crawling around and looking into a magnifying glass but the coherent stringing of clues together is completely absent.
The next victim is kindly old Headmaster Waxflatter. He too gets a blowgun dart that makes him see scary shit and then commits suicide. Honestly, this murder method was pretty damn weak. Yes, it was creepy watching the apparitions from the deepest recesses of the subconscious and what-not but in the back of your mind, you can’t get away from the fact that it’s a pretty damned unreliable murder method. The victims might run into a wall and just knock themselves out or just plain figure out what’s going on, sit down and just ride out a really bad trip.
Later in the film when Holmes, Watson, and Elizabeth all get stung, none of them die. Although, Elizabeth’s fear of dying young was rather poignant because a virtuous, beautiful girl dying young is always poignant. It also adds an emotional impact to her death scene later in the film.
Other creative shortcomings become more evident as the film progresses. It turns out the old men were evil colonizers who in their greed accidentally got some natives in Egypt massacred by British soldiers. I won’t say these things never happened, but they were a lot less frequent than 20th-century anti-colonialists made out. Anyway, there were two survivors of the slaughter, a half-caste brother and sister pair, who swore revenge on them.
There is a scene where Holmes and Watson go to some middle-eastern slum in London in search of answers about the blowgun and some greasy and bristly (and unacceptable by modern standards) native stereotype starts shrieking, “Rame-Tep! RAME-TEP!”
At this point, the film stops being a Sherlock Holmes tale and veers into being a Fu Manchu pastiche. The Rame-Tep it turns out was a cult of Osiris that was given to human sacrifice. Basically, the Thuggee cult was transplanted from India into Egypt. Spielberg’s production company made this film and his fingerprints are all over it. He was clearly heavily involved in the production. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had come out the previous year and it strongly influenced this film’s development.
Elizabeth is kidnapped by the unsurprising secret villains, the fencing master, and his secret sister. They are the ones running the Rame-Tep cult. Temple of Doom sacrifice scene is now underway with Elizabeth as the star of the show. She is wrapped up like a mummy and they are going to pour hot wax all over her. One of the starkest standouts in this scene is the reverse-racism. Every single one of these Egyptian cultists is fish-belly white. It was actually kind of funny to look at with modern eyes and would probably offend SJWs with its cultural appropriation. I know what happened. Spielberg got called a racist for his unflattering (and yes it was, in fact, racist) portrayal of Indians in Temple of Doom. So clearly the order went out, no brown people allowed in this Middle-Eastern cult. It just looks silly.
If they were going to use all whites for this cult then they should have run with it. Worship of the Egyptian pantheon was eradicated in the 6th century AD. Knowledge of the Egyptian hieroglyphic language vanished until Rosetta Stone was found in 1799. But you can make that work if you turn the Rame-Tep into a European occult group (there were plenty of those at the time) that got its hands on some texts that they were mistranslating. Waxflatter and his brethren of elderly victims could then have been portrayed as heroes trying to wipe out an obscene (and acceptably all-white cult). Thus making them more sympathetic.
Back to our story. As weak but admittedly appropriate for penny dreadful plot contrivance would have it, the temple has been constructed so that if one beam gets pulled out of place the whole thing will collapse. Holmes and Watson pull the beam. The evil sister (in a scene that would be cannibalized for a future Indiana Jones movie) gets her own dart blown into her mouth. Bad trip ensues and she sets herself on fire. The boys rescue Elizabeth who then gets shot by the Moriarty the fencing master, (oops sorry, spoiler alert). So, rescuing her was a waste of time.
Holmes and Moriarty fence and the bad guy falls through the ice. Elizbeth tragically dies. It was still affecting although not as much as when I first saw it.
In the final scene, Holmes says he is going to learn to be, “alone.” He has grown by tragedy. It has shaped him and completes his story arc from a schoolboy into becoming Sherlock Holmes
And is last seen wearing his Deerstalker and Inverness coat and puffing on the huge Calabash pipe that Watson had given him as a present, as English boarding schoolboys are known to do (I guess). Happily, he didn’t give him any cocaine to go with it. ** Credits roll and at the end, we find out that Moriarty is in fact, Moriarty.
Does it hold up?
Not well. The opening scenes still works just great but as the film progresses the narrative falls way off the Doyle track into being one of the lesser works of Stephen Spielberg. More Goonies than Baskervilles.
Is it at least better than Enola Holmes?
Marginally, yes. I would say that Young Sherlock Holmes made a very strong effort to be in the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and was clearly inspired by them. Whereas Enola Holmes wanted to subvert them to get its own political message across.
And yes, having Holmes’s first love die raised it to higher level.
In summary, it’s not a good Sherlock Holmes story but it tried hard to get there. And the practical effects hold up, making it is creepy enough to be a decent little kid’s Halloween film.
Okay, I’m done here.
*Not historically accurate. Restaurants didn’t really do business like that in period but as I said before. “The 1890s was a drastically different world, if you’re too realistic in its depiction; one, your audience is going to be completely grossed out and two, you’re going to spend half your time explaining things that the audience won’t understand.
**These affectations are nowhere in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing but he lived to see them become universally accepted as de rigor for his creation and he seemed to have no objection to it. Hey, you don’t argue with free marketing