While American television has shifted toward shorter series orders, it still hasn’t caught up with British productions like “Arthur & George,” which tells a self-contained story over three serialized episodes that each run about 45 minutes, so roughly the length of a feature film. Yet while this fact-based look at an episode in the life of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle appears designed to cash in on interest in all things related to the fictional sleuth, it’s a slim construct, with a mystery that’s as wispy and unsubstantial as fog drifting in over the moors.
Starring Martin Clunes as Doyle, the movie operates on two related tracks: The famed author has lost his wife, and is plagued by guilt over whether she knew of his emotional attachment to another woman, Jean (Hattie Morahan), before her death. So he throws himself into investigating the case of George Edalji (“The Missing’s” Arsher Ali), a mixed-race solicitor (his father is an Indian pastor) who, in 1903, served time for mutilating animals — a crime he appears not to have committed — and is being tormented (dare one say hounded?) again upon his release.
Sir Arthur, naturally, applies Holmes-like logic to try to figure out what really happened, with his personal secretary Alfred Wood (“Downton Abbey’s” Charles Edwards) serving as his Dr. Watson. Still, it’s not a terribly compelling mystery, and proceeds hand-in-hand with Doyle’s furtive steps to advance his relationship with Jean without scandalizing his family.
Holmes is such a tremendously durable character (as evidenced by Ian McKellen’s recent turn as an aged version of him in “Mr. Holmes”) that anything trading off that franchise likely has some drawing power. That said, “Arthur & George” (adapted by Ed Whitmore from Julian Barnes’ book, and directed by Stuart Orme) is understated to the point of sleepy, and doesn’t sprinkle enough red herrings to provoke much guessing or suspense as to what actually transpired.
Those misgivings exist despite what is clearly a topnotch cast, with Ali, in particular, creating a shroud of mystery around the stiff-upper-lipped George, a barrister who dismisses out of hand any suggestions that racial animus could have possibly been responsible for inspiring a plot against him.
On its face, “Arthur & George” looks like a natural for PBS, mashing up as it does impeccable period trappings, Victorian romance and the allure of a true story (yes, there’s script about what happened at the end) with the underlying Holmes-esque mystery. As put together, though, it’s handsome enough, but ultimately feels just a trifle too elementary.