September 6th marked the US premiere of Arthur & George, the miniseries adaptation of Julian Barnes’s novel that details the real-life story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fight to prove the innocence of George Edalji, a man who maintained his innocence of several gruesome crimes for which he had served prison time.
First off, I’m glad to see this story getting airtime. It’s certainly an interesting period of Doyle’s life, and while I don’t want to spoil details of the case, the outcome ended up changing British law. Considering that Holmes mania is holding strong at the moment, it’s a good time for the spotlight to shine on his creator.
The first episode acts as an origin story, both for Doyle’s world and for the Edalji case itself. Both are presented fairly obscurely, with the viewer thrown into somewhat unconnected events that are later connected and explained. The payoff works well, but this technique does necessitate a certain amount of focus on detail and tolerance for not entirely understanding what is happening at different points.
The case is presented much like a Holmes story (very intentionally, I believe), and more than once, I found myself expecting Holmes or Watson to pop up. Instead, the detecting duo is Doyle himself and his secretary, Alfred Wood, whom Doyle’s son said he thought was the actual model for Watson. Their dynamic is complex. The somewhat arrogant and unpredictable Doyle has Holmes-like moments, but his emotions and inconsistencies are far more prominent than those of his character. In contrast, Wood has the loyalty and steadiness of Watson but also appears to be the more objective of the two at times.
An element that elevates the story further is the focus on Doyle’s personal life, particularly his conflicted feelings about his attraction to Jean Leckie, the woman who had captured his interest toward the end of his wife’s life. Even though everyone in Doyle’s family is aware of and tolerant to the connection, Doyle himself is tormented by what he perceives as possible emotional unfaithfulness (and lack of certainty about his wife’s trust in him, a trust he never physically violated). This emotional touchstone provides a place for the story to go that pushes it beyond deduction and into the realm of a historical biopic.
Evaluating the first episode as a whole, my greatest plaudits go to the cast. Martin Clunes and Charles Edwards form an engaging and amusing duo as Doyle and Wood, and they manage to convey a great deal of history with subtlety. Their wit and conflict give off an amusing buddy cop impression now and then, but it’s never over the top. In contrast, the understated seriousness of Arsher Ali as Edalji introduces an air of mystery but also of pathos. He comes across as a man who has suffered extensively but refuses to be consumed by anger. It’s a somewhat complicated role that doesn’t receive a huge amount of screen time in the first episode, but Ali manages to make Edalji very compelling. No less effective are the other members of the Edalji family, who come across as regular people in an unusual situation. Finally, also of note, is Hattie Morahan as Jean Leckie. Morahan is having quite a Holmesian year; she also starred alongside Sir Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes. In Arthur & George, she plays a woman who is attracted to the man Arthur Conan Doyle is, rather than the legend of the writer, and her wit and beauty are engaging. I expect to see her story intensify emotionally in the two remaining episodes, and I know that Morahan is more than up to the task.
I highlighted the cast in particular because I think they’re a big part of why the script worked. I enjoyed parts of it very much, but there were lines and transitions in scenes that I found myself thinking would have worked much less well with less capable performers. The series goes back and forth between the extremely sobering realities of the Edalji case, which concerned particularly disturbing crimes, and the often humorous realities of the life of Doyle as an early celebrity, who was already being compared with Holmes and defined by him. Martin Clunes made the these disparate tones work together, for the most part, but I think it was a challenge. With a runtime of only 45 minutes (at least as it was transmitted in the US), the episode sometimes felt to me like it was shifting in tone quite quickly, with the potential of being emotionally jarring.
Overall, I enjoyed the first episode of Arthur & George very much, and I look forward to seeing its continuation. I recommend it to Holmesians, but also to anyone else who enjoys historical or period dramas.
Episode 1 is currently available at PBS.org
Image credit PBS
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