PBS’ stalwart series “Mystery!” has consistently produced quality shows for 20 seasons and judging by this installment, the franchise shows no signs of letting up. “Murder Rooms: The Dark Origins of Sherlock Holmes” gives fans a rare glimpse into the genesis of the inimitable Holmes via the early days of writer Arthur Conan Doyle and his relationship with the man who inspired the greatest fictional detective of all time.
Writer David Pirie has crafted a clever blend of historical evidence and fiction in the grand manner of a traditional Holmes mystery. It’s based in part on the letters and writings of Dr. Joseph Bell, a pioneer in forensic science who was Doyle’s teacher and mentor when the young writer was enrolled as a medical student at Edinburgh U.
The information utilized by Pirie for this two-part film lays the foundation for the development of both the Holmes and Watson characters (here, Bell and Doyle) and provides insight into the life of the author. Part one of the telepic introduces us to the young Doyle (Robin Laing), whose class work is disrupted by protests over the university’s inclusion of women in medical school. One particularly headstrong classmate, Elspeth (Dolly Wells), forges an instant bond with Doyle and the two grow close as they fend off the threats of angry protesters.
Doyle also forges an unlikely relationship with the unconventional Bell, whom many consider a charlatan because of his unusual methods of deduction. Bell can deduce accurate details about a person or a crime scene by simple methods of observation. His work with the local police helps to solve many crimes, but his gruff and forthright demeanor ruffles the feathers of Sir Henry Carlyle (Charles Dance), among others.
When several women are brutally murdered and it looks as if Elspeth may be the next target, Doyle tries to keep his personal feelings at bay and help Bell find the link between several bizarre crimes and solve the case.
Director Paul Seed has created a dark and dangerous world underneath the pomp and circumstance of Victorian Scotland’s well-heeled social elite. It’s also a world of inequities into which Seed and Pirie eloquently weave the story without lecturing. Seed remains unafraid to address the gorier elements of the plot, and juggles several interesting subplots while maintaining an intellectual Holmesian demeanor.
Richardson, who played Holmes in the HBO production of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” is perfection as Bell, generating both the intensity and passion of the Holmes-Bell character. Newcomers Laing and Wells, while somewhat overshadowed by the commanding Richardson, elegantly capture the weariness and compassion of two people trying to heal personal wounds.
John Kenway’s camera work is deceptively intricate and although the production is pointedly dark, he manages to capture both beautiful and startling images. Tom McCullagh effectively evokes the look and feel of Victorian Scotland, and his incredibly detailed production is greatly enhanced by the costumes of Frances Tempest.