BFS Video // 2000 // 117 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // July 20th, 2011
"I believe that crimes can be diagnosed in the same fashion as disease if we use the same techniques."
That quote comes not from Sherlock Holmes, but from Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor at the University of Edinburgh who was a mentor to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes spins a yarn from the thread of Bell's influence on Doyle's fictional detective. It relies on a fact, stated at the end of the movie, that Doyle attended school with serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, one of the Jack the Ripper suspects, and what writer David Pirie describes as Bell's "secret investigations for the Crown." Of course, Doyle could have spent his university years debating writing with James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson, but pursuing a serial killer was a more interesting angle for a fictionalized version of Doyle's life.
It begins with Doyle (Robin Laing, Band of Brothers) telling a story while hiding out from enraged readers after bumping off Sherlock Holmes. He recalls his early meeting with Bell, whom he initially thought was rather, well, nuts. Bell's doing tests with whips and bullets on a dead body, and his reading of someone's life history from observations has the air of psychic parlor games. There's enough oddity and theatricality in the performance by Ian Richardson (Brazil) as Bell to make that initial underestimation believable, and enough passion and determination to make Doyle's later admiration believable as well. Doyle's impression of Bell changes when he sees the body of a beggar and realizes that the police aren't really looking too hard at the facts. Laing's Doyle is a fairly typical student, skeptical but willing to learn and genuinely caring about people.
From there, Doyle becomes Bell's clerk, and they head off in search of a serial killer with a mystery involving a bloody room, some possible poisonings, and severed ears. There's a solution, but Bell doesn't believe it, and that will make an impact on Doyle's life.
The picture and sound are quietly well-done, with no noticeable problems. Extras include a text biography of Doyle and production notes, both of which will help viewers to piece together what was real and what was fiction in Dark Beginnings. Cast bios and a DVD-ROM edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are also included. It's a decent DVD package, although viewers might be distressed to learn it only contains the initial movie, and not the follow-up series.
I don't believe Doyle was really out there playing Watson to Bell's Holmes, but the performances make the unlikely into something entertaining to contemplate.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BFS Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Production Notes