Russian Sherlock Review: Clowns

This post will contain mild spoilers for the third episode of the Russian Sherlock Holmes series but should keep most of the surprises intact.

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The third episode of the new Russian Holmes series (watch here; turn on English subs if needed) is an action-packed romp through director Andrei Kavun’s vision of Victorian London. Much like its predecessor, it’s very action-heavy, and it seems that the first episode is the only one that moves remotely slowly in that  way.

In many ways, “Clowns” is really the emblematic episode of this series, because it brings together each of the threads the creators chose as their emphases. The previous introduction of Irene Adler was not, we see, a one-off. She’s back, and her presence wreaks havoc with the lives of Holmes and Watson. Allusions to “A Scandal in Bohemia” are woven together skillfully with a politically-focused story reminiscent of “The Bruce-Partington Plans” and even snippets of “Charles Augustus Milverton.” Over all of these hangs the specter of what we are now shown is a series arc that relates back to Watson’s military career and continues to cast him as a tragic figure losing friend after friend.

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I would be remiss in not mentioning that “Clowns” contains the most magnificent plot twist of the series so far, a clever reversal I really didn’t see coming. Several criticisms I had while watching the episode were completely resolved by it, and I applaud whichever of the writers came up with the idea.

My major remaining critique is of the portrayal of female characters. The original introduction of Irene cast her as a powerful, self-directed woman. This episode gives her layers, but in so doing, it also diminishes her strength and throws her into the more traditional damsel in distress role. Ultimately, I am comfortable with the characterization of her complicated relationship with Holmes, but I wish she had been allowed to retain her confidence in the process. The episode’s other major female character is also shown to be weak and somewhat useless throughout.

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“Clowns” is a good episode, though I felt that its writing fell just shy of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Nevertheless, its truly clever plot made up for certain bumps along the road, and Petrenko and Panin really dug into their roles in a spectacular way. Panin’s Watson was still excellent, but it was Petrenko who had the difficult task this time around, to portray a Holmes made desperate by events beyond his control. His communication of the layers of frustration and deception the story demanded was exceptional.

In the end, one particular conversation from the episode remains in my mind. It’s just after a very climactic point in the action, and Holmes and Watson muse together on the futility of life in a way that reminded me powerfully of “Waiting for Godot” and many similarly philosophical Russian works. In my opinion, that emphasis on finding the meaning below the surface of the Sherlock Holmes stories is what makes this series sing. It’s not a particularly Western touch, where we like our stories fast and our characters brash, but it’s a truly beautiful one.

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(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

Russian Sherlock Review: Baker Street, 221B

This post will contain minor spoilers for the first episode of the new Russian Sherlock Holmes series.

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Once upon a time, there was a classic Russian TV series that starred Vasili Livanov as Sherlock Holmes and Vitali Solomon as John Watson. Much like the Granada series is legendary in the UK and US, this series is respected and venerated in other parts of the world. Fast-forward to 2013, twenty years from the original, and Channel One Russia decided to create a new, Victorian-period, Russian-language adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, this time starring Igor Petrenko as Holmes and Andrey Panin as Watson.

According to Sigita Matulaityte’s review for the Baker Street Babes, The series was never intended to be a direct adaptation of the Holmes canon, so as to avoid re-covering the same exact ground as the classic series. Still, the characters and situations are heavily influenced by the Doyle stories. Currently, the first episode is available on youtube with English-language subtitles. Titled “Baker Street, 221B,” it tells the story of Holmes and Watson’s initial acquaintance.

The most important thing I can do in this review is, I think, to provide cultural context. The series is set in England, but it’s very, very Russian in its situations and interactions. It’s also very Holmesian, but it’s written as if Holmes had been reborn in Russia. In fact, I wish they had gone all the way and set it there, rather than keeping the thin veneer of Englishness, because the characters are so very Russian.

What do I mean? To me, the most significant way this comes out is in the interaction and friendship between Holmes and Watson. I’m tempted to go into a long explanation of high and low context cultural communication, but I’ll try to make it quick. Cultures like those of the US and UK are fairly low context, which means that in relationships, we say a great deal and don’t assume that much. Russia is, in contrast, a high-context culture, meaning that friendship and love is much less about what is said and directly expressed and hugely about what is implied, hinted at, and communicated physically. (Read more about these ideas here.)

Specifically, what this means for the series is that Holmes and Watson form an extraordinarily warm attachment as the episode progresses, but they express it in very different ways than their lower-context counterparts in other adaptations. They say little, but their physical interactions grow closer and closer. They don’t have long conversations about needing each other; they practice boxing together. They don’t define their partnership; they risk their lives for each other without so much as a hesitation; sometimes they even insult each other, but in the fondest of ways. Petrenko and Panin’s dance of ever-increasing friendship is as beautiful and heartwarming as any I’ve seen in a Holmes adaptation, but for the viewer from a far away culture, it requires careful analysis and observation to see signs our culture trains us to miss.

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I found the case itself the hardest thing to follow in the episode. The subtitles were quite good, but there are idioms and sayings in any language that don’t have perfect equivalents, and some of the action confused me a little bit. By the end, however, I understood how everything had come together.

Petrenko is a young Holmes, the age he’s supposed to be when the Doyle canon begins. He first describes himself as a scientist, and that’s an accurate introduction to the character. He’s a softspoken voice with a razor-sharp brain, imbued with the incredible deductive abilities of the original character and an emphasis on Holmes’s social awkwardness. If the character of Sherlock Holmes can be seen as a spectrum, he’s on the Columbo end of it. Panin is a middle-aged Watson, made somewhat frail by a wartime head injury, but extremely capable and protective of Holmes. He puts his physical self on the line a few times in the episode, and he makes his worth obvious to Holmes from the very beginning. The two men form a complement to each other. Watson is a gentle lion, kind in his interactions, but fierce in his loyalty. Holmes is a volatile lamb with an extraordinarily powerful brain and a need for someone to help him interact with the world. It’s a totally equal partnership.

I particularly enjoyed several very traditional scenes in which Holmes makes deductions about people and situations. At those moments, Petrenko’s performance came straight from the pages of the canon. I was less taken with the musical soundtrack, which seemed unable to decide what style it wanted to be.

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Bottom line: Do I recommend this series? Yes, I absolutely do, as long as you understand the cultural context you’re entering.

If you’re fond of Russian literature, even more if you’ve ever seen a play by Chekhov, you’ll have an advantage to understanding where this series is coming from. The characters, the way the plot unfolds, and the nonverbal communication (down to things like the placement of objects and use of personal space) read culturally different from what I’m used to seeing in a show about Holmes and Watson.  I don’t know how else to quantify it except to say that it’s just so Russian, and that’s something I absolutely love, because I believe Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are characters who belong to the whole world.

The greatest characters in literature say something universal about the human experience, and the wonderful thing about Doyle’s creation is that it’s not just about one person–it’s one story of two, the great detective and his Boswell. Their friendship is endlessly fascinating and touching, wherever it’s found, because it speaks to the desire we all share to find friends who will care for and support us, no matter how imperfectly human we may be.

Ultimately, Petrenko and Panin play a Holmes and Watson from a distant culture, whose interactions bear few of the markers I’ve come to expect in adaptations from cultures nearer to mine. And yet, I went away from “Baker Street, 221B” with, most of all, a profound feeling of warmth due to the experience of a beautiful relationship that entirely transcends the limits of a single culture.

I look forward to further episodes and to experiencing the wider world of this new, enjoyable Sherlock Holmes.

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The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.