Judge Dennis Prince proudly caresses the barrel of his bubble pipe when he reminds us how he successfully deduced it was the evil Dr. Peacock who stole the colors from Froot Loops.
He taught him the finer points…of murder!
Even if you're not a student of the exploits of one Sherlock Holmes, it's reasonable to presume the fabled sleuth is hardly unfamiliar to you. The creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, his character of the intensely observant and logically adept investigator has become one of the most well-known fictional figures of print and pictures. But, what was the inspiration for this insightful London-based detective, and just how did Doyle become so adept himself so as to breathe believability in his unflappable sleuth?
This becomes the premise of Murder Rooms—The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes. Originally put forth in the novels of David Pirie (who likewise penned the screenplays at work here), we're introduced to Doyle and are privy to his time spent alongside his tutor at the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Joseph Bell. It's fact, not fiction, that Doyle and Bell did enjoy a companionship under which the writer learned the craft of deduction and diagnosis from his mentor, a medical lecturer and forensic pathologist. With that, it is revealed that Dr. Bell is Sherlock Holmes and the well-known assistant, Dr. Watson, was actually an autobiographical incarnation of Doyle himself. Fascinating!
Aired in 2000 on BBC television, Murder Rooms was a miniseries in which Pirie's novels (prequels to the Holmes exploits, I would submit) were brought to life with the accomplished and compelling Sir Ian Richardson (From Hell) as Dr. Bell and Charles Edwards (Batman Begins) as Doyle. The excellent production values drop us squarely into London of the 1870s as Bell and Doyle are steeped in a variety of puzzling, perplexing, and often gruesome criminal cases. The show, originally aired January 4th and 5th of 2000, became a top-rated broadcast within the UK and ultimately found its way to like-minded enthusiasts stateside. In this DVD, the two-night drama is presented in its entirety (apparently for the first time given reports that previous home video incarnations were trimmed by up to 15 minutes). Broken out into four distinct stories, here's what you'll find on the two-disc set:
• The Patient's Eyes: A rash of grisly discoveries arise in Edinburgh to the consternation of Dr. Bell. Meanwhile, Doyle attempts to unravel the mystery of a seemingly ethereal masked cyclist that pursues a beautiful woman. Bell and Doyle collaborate in their questioning of possible suspects, learning the source of the mysterious and murderous events tie back in history to the Boer War.
• The Photographer's Chair: A serial killer is loose and identifies his work through strange marks left on his victims. Doyle, meanwhile, has revealed his own fiancée had been murdered several years prior. Calling not only upon his mentor, Dr. Bell, Doyle also seeks the services of a spiritualist to determine how the strange goings on might have roots in the great beyond.
• The Kingdom of Bones: An ancient Egyptian mummy is unwrapped but the revelation is the body beneath is that of a recently murdered Englishman. Doyle and Bell hop to it as their investigations lead them to a potential bombing conspiracy.
• The White Knight Strategem: Knowledge of a woman's suicide results in the murder of two potential witnesses. The ensuing investigation pits Dr. Bell against an old police rival. Using his best powers of deduction, Doyle reasons the policeman is correct despite the fact this will serve as a rebuking of his mentor. The truth, however, will lie somewhere in between the warring investigators.
If you've seen some of the classic Sherlock Holmes film exploits, you'll immediately detect that Murder Rooms paints its narrative with a much darker and more gothic tone (hence the sub-title). Unlike looking for ill-mannered yet still-presentable criminals, this series presents crimes and criminals that are decidedly more unsettling. This isn't the sort of fare to share with the kids, since the events that transpire here are more akin to some of today's shocking headlines and far away from any conjuring you may have regarding the smartly-attired detective and his stout assistant. As noted, the atmosphere is perfectly set with the production design and the location shooting, then ratcheted up with Pirie's compelling screenplays. The stories are smart, deliberate, and ultimately dark—and they're difficult to resist. In fact, you'll notice how the characters become even more intriguing as the stories progress, Pirie make the best use of what has been established in earlier episodes.
The characters of Bell and Doyle work well together thanks to the excellent performances of Richardson and Edwards, respectively. Bell exudes a stoic confidence and often appears bemused by his protégé's queries. His conversely stern style indicates he's serious in his investigations and expects young Doyle to behave likewise. Edwards provides a Doyle that may appear a bit suppressed but through a rather subservient style, drives home the fact that he is the student in the shadow of his vaunted mentor. Sometimes with child-like zeal, Doyle stretches his emerging powers of deduction in hopes of matching those of Bell. Together, the two combine to strike an excellent balance that works well amid the gruesome fare about them.
On DVD, Murder Rooms is presented in a very welcome 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. The image quality is impressive although not necessarily stellar. The source material is clean and the detail is generally fine although it does tend to become soft all too often. The color saturation is excellent and faithfully conveys the mood of the series. The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track that, while not overachieving, is nonetheless serviceable to the viewing. Sadly, there are no extras on the disc.
If you're an enthusiast who enjoys a decidedly different take on the legend behind the legend, then you'll likely find yourself quickly lost in this intriguing release.
Case dismissed. It was elementary conclusion, of course.
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