Sherlock S03E03: His Last Vow

A garbled mess that has no idea where it’s going or why, His Last Vow is the last nail in Sherlock’s coffin; a fall from grace so precipitous and a crying shame so heartrending that the very idea of reviewing it is almost unbearable to me. Her Ladyship has, however, done appalling things for the good of her readers in the past – watching the first episode of School of Thrones and finishing that ghastly intellectual nonentity Labyrinth being among them – so she shall therefore endeavour to write her review without keeling over, screaming or dying. If the latter does occur, however: ‘To God [her] soul. To Rafe Sadler [her] books.’

His Last Vow gets off to a very promising start as we are introduced to our villain of the piece, news giant and serial blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen, who has been called before a committee to explain why Number 10 has been blessed with his presence more times this year than has been deemed appropriate. Played by an excellent Lars Mikkelsen, he loves to play on what he calls people’s ‘pressure points,’ and has an icy, creepy, unblinking and utterly revolting charisma about him that reminds you somewhat of Tørk Hviid in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. We’re soon apprised of the fact that he has a similar lack in scruples as he blackmails committee chairman Lady Elizabeth Smallwood (Lindsay Duncan) to rule in his favour, using some explicit letters that her husband once wrote to a fifteen-year-old girl as leverage. This leads Lady Smallwood to call at Baker Street and ask Sherlock to act as intermediary between them. A fatal mistake, it seems, as this is where the entire episode starts to collapse around our ears; a string of ridiculous coincidences involving Sherlock’s feigned relapse into his drug habits and his seduction of one of Mary’s bridesmaids leading to another string of ridiculous coincidences involving breaking into Magnussen’s office,  discovering that Magnussen is still in his office at the time of the break-in, smelling Lady Smallwood’s perfume on the air, assuming she’s there to kill him, and discovering that the lady with the gun is in fact Mary, who isn’t an adorable nurse, but an ex-CIA assassin who wants Magnussen dead because he’s threatening to blow the whistle. From then on out, the episode is plot point after ridiculous plot point, piled one on top of the other with all the grace of a university student’s laundry pile (or lack thereof); mercifully interspersed with one or two beautiful scenes and unmercifully overdosed with a huge pile of poorly-written, unrealistic, tiresome and pointless ones. Further pandemonium is then brought about by the fact that this is all held together by the spit and prayers of a line of liaison so fixed on where it wants to end up that it doesn’t care which convoluted, nonsensical and utterly stupid routes it has to adopt in order to get there…or at what cost.

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One of the best things about the first two seasons of Sherlock was the scrupulous, almost medical cleanliness of the way each episode was presented: beautifully stark; impeccably precise; complex, yet minimalistic; an indestructible glass house with a baroque darkness about the people living in it; modern London as much a living, breathing predator to Sherlock as Victorian London is to Holmes. The first two seasons embodied everything that is best in British crime drama: heavy on plot, heavy on character, heavy in an inexplicably addictive and redemptive way. They also embodied everything that was best about the Sherlock-John relationship: the infectious camaraderie; the old-married-couple bickering; the almost-always-unspoken symbiosis of it, delivered with minimal words and much action. All of this complexity was kept so perfectly balanced that it probably wouldn’t have collapsed if plonked down on the end of a pin and left to fend for itself.

Oh, the good old days.

Oh, the good old days.

The problem with His Last Vow is that this characteristic sense of control and balance, indeed all sense of control and balance, seems to have disappeared across the board. The episode and its characters are allowed to run riot, and to create scenes of such havoc that one is often left wondering whether one is watching a TV series, or a particularly tedious piece of contemporary art with the aim of demonstrating the chaos that populates a writer’s head prior to a story’s actually beginning to take logical shape. Everything that this episode tries to bring to the fore – the depth of Sherlock’s affection for John, and for Mary; the depth of John’s love for Mary; Mycroft’s true feelings about his embarrassing little brother; Sherlock’s penchant for self-sacrifice and the limitlessness of his brilliant brain – all of it is done in a painfully obvious, lamentably unsubtle, sometimes out-of-character and incredibly over-the-top way that suggests that the script of this episode was not ready to be written, let alone filmed. The whole miserable business is still at the stage where it belongs nowhere but the inside of Stephen Moffatt’s head, or at the very limit, in a heavily-password-protected file in the depths of his computer where it can embarrass no one but him. All writers have one, so why not use it?

It’s all very well to sit here on high complaining about The Last Vow, but it isn’t entirely fair to do so without suggesting possible solutions. How, then, could the mess have been rectified? By a process of intense de-cluttering.

Step 1: Get rid of Lady Elizabeth Smallwood and her husband’s creepy letters. It’s a way of linking Magnussen to Sherlock that is just too round-about, wastes too much time and disappears so quickly into the general confusion that by the time we meet Lady Smallwood again at the end of the episode, we’ve almost forgotten who she is. Doing this would mean compromising on her excellent blackmail scene with Magnussen, and depriving us of the joy of seeing two fine actors like Mikkelsen and Duncan in the same scene, but you can’t have everything, and everything is something this episode already has too much of. So instead of introducing Magnussen through Lady Smallwood and then moving on, make his blackmail of Mary the premise from the start. Do a scene with him and her in which we don’t know who he is (or why he’s blackmailing her), only that she’s there to kill him. Ensure that she is prevented in some way:  do an ‘emails get sent to the press if I die’ thing if absolutely necessary – though with a man of Magnussen’s reputation it would probably take a lifetime for his henchmen to work out which one of the ten thousand ruinous emails he has waiting should be sent in the first place. Anyway, an opening scene of this kind gives Magnussen a chance to show off his initial creepiness, and Mary a chance to show off her new-found mysteriousness.

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Step 2: Get Mary to ask Sherlock for help. Not only will this be an interesting investigation into their relationship (particularly if she blackmails him to keep him quiet; which seems more in character than simply begging him not to tell); but is also a good way to educate the audience about Magnussen without all that pointless mucking about with drug dens; Janine; breaking into Magnussen’s office, and Sherlock getting shot and hospitalised. Also, if you want to be really smart, don’t let the audience in immediately on what Mary’s being blackmailed for. All we need to know is that she considers it momentous enough to end her and John’s marriage, and that the evidence for whatever it is is being held in the vaults beneath Magnussen’s house.

Step 3: So Sherlock tells John, of course; or, as in the episode, finds a way for Mary to unwittingly reveal herself. He does this regardless of anything that he’s been threatened with, and John justifiably freaks out. Don’t switch locations halfway through these two occurrences: if anything, it cuts the tension in half instead of augmenting it. The build up to the conclusion that John’s attracted to psychopaths needs to be re-written completely: Sherlock asking him a bunch of questions and making his conclusions for him just doesn’t really cut it, and neither do John’s responses to him. Actually, since our present state of things doesn’t have Sherlock injured, or clueless as to Mary’s past, leave him out of the scene altogether. Make it a matter between John and Mary, and let them draw conclusions together. A bust-up between them would also be more evocative of character than the somewhat heartless ‘we decide if we want you’ scene. The idea of the flash disk key to Mary’s past is good: keep it.

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Step 4: Find some other way of getting Sherlock and John to Magnussen’s house. That entire Christmas scene, smoking scene, drugging the entire bloody Holmes family+Mary and taking a helicopter ride with Mycroft’s laptop in tow is both too much and too far-fetched for words. Of course this poses the problem of how to get their hands on Mycroft’s laptop without his noticing its absence, and how to barter it with Magnussen without Mary finding out about it (one assumes she would want to know something about how her salvation is being brought about, since in our version of events, she’s asked Sherlock for help). Since drugs clearly have to be in this episode somewhere, use them on Mycroft only and preferably at night, so that the contents of his laptop can be copied onto some mega flash disk à la the missile plans in The Great Game; otherwise onto an external hard drive. Totter off to Magnussen’s place; do the big reveal about his vaults being a mind palace, and hold on to the episode’s present ending if we absolutely have to see Sherlock commit another self-sacrifice. Otherwise, get Sherlock and John into the sort of trouble that usually befalls people who walk into psychopaths’ houses (preferably post-mind palace conversation) and do an ‘unknown shooter’ thing (as in A Study in Pink). Police are called, Sherlock and John go home happy, unknown shooter turns out to be Mary, to whom shooting through the bastard’s window had apparently never before occurred.

Step 5: End off with John saying he’s not going to read the flash disk about Mary’s past. Fin.

This version of events does deprive us of another chance to see Sherlock giving up everything for his friends, but after The Reichenbach Fall, even more self-sacrifice seems a bit excessive.

The Last Vow is not entirely shitty. It has some lovely moments, and a couple of truly brilliant ideas (i.e. Magnussen’s non-existent vaults beneath his home). Unfortunately, the way it’s all executed is so tangled, sloppy and headache-inducing that the good doesn’t even come close to redeeming the bad, and this season of Sherlock suffers for it; ending with a whimper rather than a bang.

Sherlock S03E02: The Sign of Three

Any wedding episode that manages to be totally lacking in corniness without having The Rains of Castamere on its playlist is a jewel, and while The Sign of Three is without doubt the most atypical of all Sherlock episodes in terms of just about everything, it has the distinction not only of being a jewel, but of being a remarkably well-thought-out and impeccably-structured rendering of a fiendishly-complicated plot, and a moving and hilarious bringing-to-light of everything that is good about the Sherlock-John relationship.

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It’s John and Mary’s wedding day, and Sherlock has found the build-up to the event rather distressing, for more reasons than one. Firstly, because of a deep-set fear (that he insists on denying) that John’s being a married man will spell the end of their partnership and will inevitably consign him to the gallows of haunting crime scenes with only a skull to talk to; secondly, because he has to make a speech as best man. His fears on the first count turn out to be groundless, most obviously because John can’t imagine a life without solving crimes, blogging about it and sniggering when Sherlock forgets his pants, but most importantly (and realistically) because John has had the good (and rare) fortune to fall in love with a woman who actually encourages their bromance (Sidebar: Mary is fucking awesome, she like totally sees that they’re both afraid things will change because of her, and likes to make them sneak around together like naughty schoolboys when she’s actually the person who planted the idea of doing the actual sneaking. But anyway.) As to Sherlock’s fears about the best man speech, well, those do turn out to be justified, and it is when confronted with a hall full of loud, half-drunk, oddly-shaped wedding guests and too nervous to be anything but himself, that Sherlock sets the ball rolling across a barrage of memorable cases, anecdotes and other totally sincere praises of the incomparable John Watson that takes an entire episode to navigate, and that soon transforms into one of the most important deductions of Sherlock’s life as it becomes clear that the wedding day is also one ingenious murderer’s personalised version of judgement day.

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Structuring an entire episode around a best man speech, and managing all the inevitable back and forth craziness incumbent upon such a structure, is a huge risk for any production to take: too much, and the audience can’t follow, too little, and the audience falls asleep. In the case of The Sign of Three, the risk pays off beautifully, and a sizeable chunk of the credit for that success goes to writer Stephen Thompson, who, despite his evident prowess and talent from a technical perspective, is also wildly imaginative and unfailingly good at bringing that imagination to the screen; most especially in the devices he employs to help us see what’s going on in Sherlock’s head; some of them classic, some of them entirely new. The most intelligent, and the most entertaining of these, is the lengthy scene involving Sherlock, a lecture hall full of women, Mycroft providing helpful hints from on high, and a surprise appearance by Irene Adler (defrocked), who is promptly told to ‘get out of my head, I’m busy!’ It’s a fantastic metaphor – and it looks good too.

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Whereas last week’s episode was definitely Martin Freeman’s in terms of acting, Sherlock belongs, this week, to Benedict Cumberbatch. Sherlock is utterly unpredictable in this episode (more so than usual, I mean); acting his charming, high-functioning-sociopathic self one minute, and unabashedly praising his friend with total and complete sincerity the next, to the point of making every person present burst into tears. The language might very well have seemed cringeworthy, and out-out-character in the hands of any other actor, but Cumberbatch delivers such a deadly combination of gravity, coldness, emotion and drama that the considerable amount of gut-spilling he does in the praising of John’s character is beautifully touching, and perhaps most importantly, perfectly believable in a character who prides himself on his own freedom from sentiment. Acting kudos also go to Amanda Abingdon, who is luminous, smart and hilarious as Mary, and to Alistair Petrie, who is tragic and charismatic as John’s ex-commander, Major Sholto.

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A huge improvement from last week across the board, The Sign of Three does nevertheless leave one wishing that something more would have happened, or at least that things might have been a bit less predictable. It’s a problem that also popped up in The Empty Hearse, but The Sign of Three is simply too much fun for me to throw my toys out of the cot about it. And there’s always next week; which, considering the story on which it is based, will more than make up for these rather glaring deficiencies in plot.

‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ Made Awesome in Six Easy Steps

It isn’t difficult to imagine why Jane Austen would want to satirise a novel like The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is, despite its fine romantic imagery, the huge role it played in defining the Gothic novel and Mrs Radcliffe’s general awesomeness as a successful female novelist in nineteenth century England, a rather silly book. Its characters are tiresome cardboard cut-outs in the habit of spontaneously composing perfectly-structured poetry, which they sometimes recite (mercifully when alone); its plot is engaging, then thrilling, then utterly flat; and the author often doesn’t seem able to make up her mind as to whether she’s writing a novel, a treatise on the Sublime, or what Lady Bracknell would call ‘a three [four?] volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality.’

Her Ladyship has determined that the task of reviewing this valuable, important, harmlessly fun and unappealingly preposterous book is far too large and complicated an assignment. She shall therefore undertake to suggest a few changes that might have made it a more entertaining read. Most of these would probably be unacceptable in nineteenth century society, would no doubt have seen the author excommunicated and forced into hiding, and will not take into account that Udolpho’s ridiculousness is entirely deliberate and appropriate to the genre at that time, but what matter? Her Ladyship is simply amusing herself.

Let us begin with a brief introduction to the characters most relevant to this little project.

Emily St Aubert: the novel’s protagonist. A sugary sweet, good as gold, virtuous, righteous, honourable, helpless little princess (not literally) with the constitution of a butterfly; overly fond of fainting and of trying to be rational.  She does, mercifully, have a strong but not overpowering spunk about her that prevents her from being utterly unbearable and even leads us to admire her every now and again, particularly in her confrontations with Signor Montoni .

Artwork by Three Panel Book Review on tumblr.

Artwork by Three Panel Book Review on tumblr.

Monsieur St Aubert: Emily’s father. Jean-Jacques Rousseau without the sulking.

Valancourt: Emily’s fiancé; the stereotypical passionate young lover. Self-pitying, narcissistic, eminently punchable, spends most of his time making Emily lose consciousness and feel dreadful about herself. He’s also good, then bad, then good, then not-so-bad-after-all, then good, and is simply not worth the trouble of puzzling it all out.

Madame Montoni: Emily’s aunt. Mrs Reed from Jane Eyre, only inclined to greed instead of jealousy (not that she’s without that either).

Signor Montoni: Madame Montoni’s husband, the novel’s villain. The most bearable character in the entire book, he is only rendered so by not possessing a jot of the golden virtue that most of the other characters possess ad nauseum. Callous, cruel, amoral, dissolute, brooding and greedy: stereotypical gothic bad guy.

Count Morano: Montoni’s friend; the embodiment of every bad thing the English have ever thought about Italians (lustful, overly-passionate, can’t take no for an answer, blah blah blah).

Udolpho not being the most popular book in the universe, we shall now take a look at a bland and poorly-written introduction to plot points relevant to our purposes:

Emily lives happily in Gascony with her parents; Emily’s mother dies; Emily’s father takes her on a tour by coach to the Languedoc and the Pyrenees; they run into Valancourt on the road; Valancourt and Emily fall in love on the road; Emily’s father dies on the road; Emily is put into the care of her heinous aunt Madame Montoni, who says that she can’t marry Valancourt, then that she can, and then that she can’t; Emily is taken away to Italy by Madame Montoni and her creepy husband Signor Montoni, who has an equally-creepy castle in the Apennines called Udolpho; they settle in Venice, where Emily meets Montoni’s dishonourable friend Count Morano; Count Morano never stops trying to get into Emily’s pants; Montoni tries to marry Emily to Count Morano, Emily refuses, Emily is told she will be forced to marry Count Morano; on the morning of the wedding, Montoni unexpectedly takes Emily and Madame Montoni away to Udolpho.

Artwork by zen_parvez-d5trhut

Artwork by zen_parvez-d5trhut

Udolpho turns out to be a terrifying edifice where supernatural things go bump in the night; Montoni turns out to be a bit of a jerk who is trying to force Emily’s aunt to give her fortune to him instead of Emily when she dies; Madame Montoni refuses to sign over her fortune; Montoni finds time, between his commission of various grievous crimes including getting drunk with his friends, associating with bandits and carousing with ladies of the night, to employ a number of cruel and unpleasant means to get his wife to succumb; Emily spends most of her time crying, fainting, wishing Valancourt would rescue her, and interceding with Montoni on her aunt’s behalf when the old lady has been nothing but a bitch to her; and…well. Her Ladyship does not intend to summarise the entire book.

Let us begin.

The Mysteries of Udolpho made awesome in six easy steps

Make Emily edgy.

Make her a more flawed version of Elizabeth Bennett; or make her someone who seems perfect, but is hiding something, or running from something; or if she absolutely has to be a stereotype, make her a tomboy. It’s a less annoying stereotype than that of the princess.

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Cut down on the random poetry recitals.

Yes, making characters spontaneously write poems in their heads is a very original idea, but unless your characters are literary geniuses, oral poets, or from Middle Earth, it’s not realistic, and doesn’t even make us want it to be realistic.

Make Emily think about escaping Udolpho on her own steam.

Sure, it’s difficult to do any kind of spontaneous running when you’re trapped in a castle on a mountain. It’s not difficult to find out all you can about the surrounding country, or to know when the guard is changed, how many guards there are per watch, what routes they take, what weapons they carry, which ones are drunks, which ones are idiots, which ones fall asleep on duty (hey! I’m sounding like Arya Stark!). Even if it’s just the thought of bribing someone, stop all this waiting for Valancourt or Ludovico (the novel’s stereotypical Italian servant) bullshit and let the girl use her brain. Better still, let her try to run away. It’s a stupid idea without the aforementioned preparation, but at least she’d be rendered a little less pathetic.

Make Emily see Valancourt for the self-obsessed little creep he really is.

Valancourt’s strategy, both in a fight and out of it, is to blame Emily for absolutely everything and then to use a diabolical kind of reverse psychology and paint himself in the worst possible light. This inevitably makes Emily feel awful, start crying and not want to lose him, and while we can certainly give her the credit of not yielding to most of his entreaties, she kind of spoils things by making it clear that she wants to. Then there’s the way that he talks to her, expresses his love for her and woos her, which is so disgustingly sentimental that even your standard male participant in a medieval courtly love relationship would find it either hilarious or distasteful.

If you absolutely have to pair Emily with someone, pair her with Montoni.

Turn it into an ‘irresistible chemistry between cruel older man and innocent young girl’ thing. And, if you want to be really original, don’t make her reform him or discover that ‘deep down he’s vulnerable and just wants to be loved,’ or anything like that. Keep him bad, and keep her good and virtuous, but unable to help herself: the sort of thing that Angela Carter does in The Bloody Chamber. For one thing, the sheer raciness of the idea would make the entire novel a thousand times more entertaining, and would provide a lot more opportunity for character development in Emily, i.e. she’ll have a choice between staying in a destructive relationship, or taking charge and walking away.

Yes, she’s in a castle in the middle of nowhere, but can’t we just pretend?

Make the ghosts real.

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Or at least make us unsure that they’re not. A ghost story that provides rational explanations for every thrillingly creepy incident (albeit at the end, so it’s not that bad) is just plain disappointing. The triumph of reason is a very sensible and very noble literary theme, but in a gothic novel? It doesn’t really work unless it’s cathartic in some way, and though ghosts are laid to rest by the novel’s end, we aren’t seized by any kind of emotion or catharsis, because the author decides to devote a chapter to explaining everything. This would be fine if it was done through the mouths of the novel’s characters. What we get instead is an utterly-emotionless step-by-step provision of reasons why none of the shit going down is actually supernatural. It’s both yawnable and disappointing.

That being said, Her Ladyship has now adequately amused herself and is retiring for the night. I would say something to the tune of ‘Farewell, dear reader,’ but that would just be irritating.

Sherlock S03E01: The Empty Hearse (Review)

Her Ladyship takes time off from her wanderings in the dark corridors of fan fiction to watch the premier episode of Sherlock season 3 and to reason from what she sees.

A singularly-strange and enjoyable little episode that feels a lot more like the product of the hugely-hyperactive and oft OTT pen of Steven Moffat than the darkly-intelligent work of its actual writer, Mark Gatiss, The Empty Hearse is big on chemistry, hugely entertaining and very promising of more awesomeness to come; yet falls a little flat in terms of plot, and of the mishandling of a few subtle but entirely basic Sherlock character traits that doesn’t quite seem pardonable in a show run by a pair of Holmes junkies.

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The Empty Hearse has a lot of fun ridiculing the many fan theories (both plausible and preposterous) that have popped up since the deeply-moving rooftop scene in The Reichenbach Fall that had most of us crying and screaming into our pillows for days after it was shown. None, however, is quite so much fun as the one we are introduced to first, in the episode’s engaging and utterly-badass opening sequence that brings us everything from the strategically-placed cyclist, to the bungee-rope-not-bungee-rope in Sherlock’s coat, to the Sherlock mask on Moriarty’s corpse; as well as a range of other awesomeness of which we shall not speak (except Sherlock crashing through the mortuary window and sticking his tongue down Molly’s throat. That part was too much fun not to mention). After the opening sequence, the show loses no time in informing us that Sherlock has been fully exonerated, post-mortem, of the charges trumped up by Moriarty, has spent the past two years dismantling the criminal genius’ network, and has been recalled to London from the depths of a Serbian torture chamber by his brother Mycroft, who wants him to investigate an imminent terrorist threat to the city. This, of course, means being reunited with John, who is newly-engaged, still grieving the loss of his best friend to the point of not having contacted Mrs Hudson for two years, and will probably be none too pleased that Sherlock has knowingly allowed him to go through hell. John’s reaction to the discovery that Sherlock is alive constitutes the main crux of the episode, and it is, most unfortunately, a double-edged sword of a focal point.

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First up, John. Martin Freeman’s acting is beautifully, movingly and vividly realistic. In John’s day-to-day existence he dons the grin-and-bear-it mask that so many bereaved people wear every day of their lives no matter how much it hurts. In his quieter moments of remembrance with his fiancée Mary (Amanda Abbingdon), and in the touchingly-garbled and emotional conversation that he has with Mrs Hudson when he finally works up the courage to visit 221B after Sherlock’s death, he starts to let us in more and more as to what he’s been thinking and feeling in coming to terms with the ‘aloneness’ of a world without Sherlock. It’s in his interaction with Sherlock himself, of course, that all hell truly breaks loose, and the naturally-volcanic chemistry between Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a whole lot of highly-emotional, heartrending and side-splitting scenes together, as John alternates between listening to Sherlock trying (and failing) to explain himself in an acceptable manner; and attempting to murder Sherlock in a variety of ways for what he has done.

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It is Sherlock’s half of the equation, regrettably, that just doesn’t feel right, and the problem lies in the script’s characterisation of him. Yes, we all know that Sherlock is a sociopath and has a near-autistic inability to understand or consider the feelings of others; and this may very well lead us to make the same conclusions, in terms of his character, that Gatiss has made in the script, i.e. Sherlock believes that John will be ‘delighted’ to discover that he is alive; doesn’t display anything that could reasonably be called remorse; is quite at a loss to understand why his friend doesn’t forgive him immediately; and is willing to resort to the most callous (if typical) of theatrics to bring John’s true feelings about him to the fore.

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‘If his theatrics are typical, then what’s the problem?’ The answer to that question is in the Reichenbach Fall itself. The pathos of that scene; the incredible emotion and tragedy of it; Sherlock’s willingness to destroy both himself and his reputation for the good of his friends; the fact that we see him crying towards the end of it; the usually stunted nature of his emotions transformed in the face of death, even though the great detective almost certainly knows, at that point, that he will not die: the idea of those emotions being simulated is, to Her Ladyship at least, absolutely unthinkable. Watching it, you’re really seized with the idea of separation being just as painful for Sherlock as it is for John (even if it isn’t, John not being about to die), and as a viewer, you’re granted a rare opportunity of seeing that, unburied beneath all Sherlock’s usual bullshit. I’m not saying that I wanted Sherlock to break down and be an emotional wreck for most of The Empty Hearse. Emotion is not something he does easily or lightly: but just one, tiny particle of a millisecond of acknowledgment of how hard it must have been for him to know that for two years, his friend was just a text away from being spared complete misery and heartache, would have rendered the Sherlock we see in this episode just a little more human, and would have ensured that the Reichenbach Fall itself, arguably the greatest scene ever between Sherlock and John, was not so shamelessly trivialised.
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The original short story on which this episode is based, The Empty House, succeeds marvellously at this particular aspect of Holmes’ character, even though he is faced with an entirely forgiving Watson who does nothing more alarming that faint at the sight of him. The short story manages to preserve both Holmes’ character, and the uncharacteristic expression of the depth of his regard for Watson. Let’s look at a quote:

“I had only one confidant – my brother Mycroft. I owe you many apologies, my dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhappy end had you not yourself thought that it was true. Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret (…) I came over at once to London, called in my own person at Baker Street, threw Mrs Hudson into violent hysterics, and found that Mycroft had preserved my rooms and my papers exactly as they had always been. So it was, my dear Watson, that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.”

In contemporary English: ‘I was scared that you’d do something stupid if you knew I was alive. I knew what you must have been going through, I missed you like hell, and I’m sorry.’ The short story preserves Holmes’ charming narcissism and high opinion of himself, while still presenting us with a touching apology and a sincere admission of guilt. Will somebody please explain to me why this could not be done convincingly in The Empty Hearse? True, Victorian men were much more vocal about their affections for their friends than contemporary ones, but the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock could easily have portrayed emotions parallel with those of the Conan-Doylian Holmes even without saying a word, and this could have been achieved with just a tad more attention to detail and subtlety in the script. I find it very hard to believe that a writing and production team working with an actor of Benedict Cumberbatch’s calibre could not find some way of doing this properly.

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But now I’m acting as though the entire episode was ruined by this one thing; and that is very far from the truth. Most of the scenes between John and Sherlock are an absolute joy to watch, thanks to the aforementioned Freeman-Cumberbatch chemistry, and as the original storyline of the terrorist plot on London becomes more and more submerged in the interaction between their characters, we find that we don’t mind very much at all. There is a wonderful scene involving Sherlock, John, a bomb and a railway cart (V for Vendetta?) that makes for phenomenal viewing thanks to its powerful acting (I don’t ship Sherlock and John as a couple, but I must confess to harbouring sentiments distinctly of the ‘just kiss him, already!’ persuasion while watching it). A pleasant surprise is the instant and seemingly-mutual respect that springs up between Sherlock, and John’s fiancée Mary, which should provide us with plenty of interesting interactions in future episodes; particularly in terms of the way it will no doubt develop when the time actually comes for John and Mary to get married. An unpleasant surprise is the recourse to terrible jokes and clichés for no apparent reason (what exactly was the point of making such a terrific fuss about Sherlock getting his coat back, à la Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood: Children of Earth?). But, ultimately, The Empty Hearse is well-acted enough, and entertaining enough, to keep us wanting more, and to make us give the showrunners the benefit of the doubt thanks to the awesomeness of their previous material. Her Ladyship shall return next week, to find out if the game is afoot, or over.

A sufferer of chronic treatment-resistant depression reviews ‘Side Effects’ and is not impressed.

Every now and again, I watch the first half of Side Effects and somewhat wistfully pretend it was a good movie. All the potential for it is there. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) descends into a suicidal depression following her husband’s return from prison for insider trading. When she attempts suicide – twice – her psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) reluctantly prescribes a new miracle drug called Ablixa, whose unfortunate tendency to induce sleepwalking leads Emily to stab her husband to death while she sleeps. The consequences of this drag Emily and Jonathan down into the deep water between the Scylla and Charbydis of institutionalisation and prison, where proof that Ablixa was responsible for the murder becomes the only thing that will save both Emily’s sanity and Jonathan’s all-but-destroyed reputation.

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Rooney Mara, who dazzled us so spectacularly in the otherwise-mediocre The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is stunning in this role. Her simultaneously deadpan and stricken face realistically embodies the hunted, yet empty look of depression; and the deep-set hysteria and sluggishness that it inflicts on the human form are evocatively conveyed in the huskiness of her voice and the freneticism of her movements. Some aspects of the script are equally good at conveying what depression can feel like and look like: the constant, torturing knowledge that if things do get better, they’ll almost certainly get bad again at some point in the future; the aversion to standing up because it hurts too much; the way your head feels too heavy for your neck and always makes you want to lean it back against something; the way that death can seem a friend, or at least a pleasant alternative; how things get lost on the way from your brain to your mouth; how you constantly feel like you’re running from something (but never towards something) and how much you want to punch out the teeth of people who claim (meaning well, of course), that they have a fucking clue what you’re going through and presume to give you advice on how to cope. All the pieces are in place for a dark, but cathartic piece of art-house cinema about a woman overcoming the worst thing that this disease can offer a person: having to suffer it while dealing with the loss of someone you love and knowing, all the while, that you’re the one who killed them.

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What we get instead is a descent into far-fetched lunacy when it emerges that Emily isn’t sick at all and is conspiring with her lover and former therapist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta Jones) to make a killing off Ablixa stocks, which have plummeted since the murder. It’s quite literally a case of ‘I’m a therapist, so I’ll teach you how to be depressed; your husband is all into insider trading, so you can teach me that; we’ll make a lot of money and have lots of sex; and you get to kill the son of a bitch who ruined your life into the bargain.’ Some people call this a clever twist. I call it stigmatising a disease that already has enough of a stigma attached to it in the first place. Sure, there is no such thing as the right not to be offended, and it says clearly in the film that Victoria teaching Emily ‘how to be depressed’ is a long and torturous process. But let’s think about the connection between depression and pretending that still exists in the consciousness of the vast majority of people today; and the implications that a film like this has for this connection.

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We live in a society in which depression is still widely considered an inadequate excuse for not attending work, a function, a meeting or a family gathering.  Often the sufferer will be told to cheer up, to get a grip on themselves and to stop being so full of nonsense. It will sometimes be whispered behind the sufferer’s back that their depression is a synonym for laziness, an excuse to get out of something, or a form of attention-seeking or hypochondria. And in many cases, and this is far and away the worst part of the problem, the sufferer will often believe this themselves, and will subject themselves to the most horrifying forms of mental torture by brazening out whatever hellish occasion they need to attend regardless of how anguished, despairing, frail and exhausted they feel. Many will even manage (somehow) to pretend that everything’s fine in order to save face with other people and with themselves; and none but the most attentive observer will notice that anything’s wrong with them at all.

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Millions of people with depression do this kind of pretending all day every day: we pretend for spouses, for parents, for children, for colleagues, for employees, and for ourselves. We even do it when things get desperate enough for us to call in sick or to stay home because the thought of leaving the house, or even the bed, seems like the equivalent of an apocalypse of the soul. So we lie and say we’ve got the flu or a migraine, because telling the truth exposes us to the infinite variations on ‘cheer up and get a grip’ that are described above. My psychiatrist once said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: ‘If a diabetic collapsed in front of you, would you tell them to cheer up and stop being pathetic? Of course you wouldn’t. So why do people do the same thing with depression? Depression is a disease, just like diabetes is a disease.’ She shocked me, because this very simple, very sensible thought about my own condition had never occurred to me. I don’t for a moment claim to speak for every sufferer of depression, but if this doesn’t even enter the head of someone suffering from depression, then movies like Side Effects aren’t going to generate a whole lot of understanding or empathy from those who do not suffer from it. In a climate in which the links between depression and ‘faking it’ or ‘pretending’ are probably stronger than they ever were, films like Side Effects, that portray depression as something that can be taught and expertly pretended and transform depression into a deception that can be used by a pair of con artists, encourage the myth, however small and careless such encouragement might be. They ensure that the wheel of ‘you’re a hypochondriac ’, ‘cheer up and ‘you’re pretending’ keeps right on turning with no end in sight.

Millions of depressed people are indeed pretending every day of their lives. But we’re not pretending to be sick; we’re pretending to be fine. Perhaps someone should make a movie about that.

Hysteria (2011): Film Review

Despite numerous unfortunate clichés in both character and plot, almost all of which may be put down to this film’s being a romantic comedy (a genre that Her Ladyship usually abhors), Hysteria is a rather sweet film that somehow, inexplicably, makes you forgive its many faults and enjoy yourself tremendously in the process. Director Tanya Wexler and screenwriters Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer and Howard Gensler somehow manage to turn the invention of the first ever vibrator into a social commentary on West End and East End life in late Victorian London; to address the issue of the repression of women (sexual and otherwise) in the Victorian era; to give us a charming if not-particularly-original love story; and to afford us the opportunity, every now and again, to laugh our heads off at Rupert Everett as he fools around with wires, causes small explosions and reclines on a chaise longue pretending to be Oscar Wilde.

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Doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) has just got himself kicked out of his fifth or sixth hospital for the heinous crime of insisting that germs exist. Desperate for money, and disillusioned with a profession that seems to want to cure people without actually helping them, he determines to find himself an utterly mundane position that won’t lead to any further head-butting with his superiors. Such a position is soon forthcoming at the practice of Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Price), a doctor who specialises in hysteria; hysteria being a polite term for female sexual frustration. Believed by doctors to be an actual disease linked to movements of the uterus (till 1952, Her Ladyship wishes to add); the angry and occasionally insane behaviour that being horny can cause were considered so offensive to the Victorian mentality and so contrary to its conception of womanliness that many of these poor women ended up institutionalised with hysterectomies forcibly performed on them, supposedly for their own good. So, to abate the symptoms of hysteria, a disease that is suffered by ‘half the women in London,’ Doctor Dalrymple spends most of his time bringing women to climax in his consulting rooms with a variety of oils and balms, all the while believing, quite sincerely, that he is performing a perfectly serious medical procedure.

Bless.

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Needless to say that Mortimer turns out to be a natural at this sort of thing, and while he is thrilled to have played so great a part in swelling patient numbers, he is soon beset by constant panic about the blinding pain in his hand; the result, no doubt, of stimulating one clitoris too many. Enter the need for a useful machine, and enter two separate ideals of womanliness to add to poor Mortimer’s troubles: Emily and Charlotte, Doctor Dalrymple’s daughters.

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Emily (Felicity Jones) is, rather predictably, the object of Mortimer’s affections from the very start. Cut from the same cloth as Lucy in Dracula and Laura in The Woman in White, she is the ideal Victorian woman: sweetness, gentleness and submissiveness incarnate. Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), on the other hand, is a crass suffragist and philanthropist whose ladylike manners have not survived running a settlement house for the poor in the East End. She’s passionate, tomboyish and a bit of a badass, and takes an instant dislike to Mortimer, whom she sees as joining her father in ministering to the needs of spoilt upper-class housewives who suffer from a bogus condition that never seems to affect the women she works with because they’re too busy worrying where their next meal is going to come from. Mortimer and Charlotte predictably spend most of the film driving each other to distraction in a tidal wave of English wit and stringently-denied sexual attraction, but find common ground in their belief that good health and good doctors should be freely available to all those who need it, regardless of social class or occupation. It just takes Mortimer rather longer than Charlotte to realise that he believes this at all.

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The two sisters that are polar opposites; one overly-virtuous, if likeable, the other wildly intelligent and outspoken, is a feature of the romantic comedy genre that has been done to death and could very well have been spared in this film; poor Emily serving little purpose beyond getting in the way despite a half-hearted attempt to give her a mind of her own in the film’s final act; Charlotte clearly intended to resemble every spirited nineteenth-century heroine from Elizabeth Bennett to Marian Halcombe, but so caught up in this business of resembling that she sometimes forgets to be herself. Nevertheless, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance is charming and extremely raw, and she convinces completely as a woman who has no time for one way of life when she has understood how much can be accomplished in another. Her interactions with the residents of her settlement house are disarming and genuine, and she possesses a rare ability to talk to the people she interacts with without seeming to patronise or to distance herself from them on the grounds of her class. She works in frequently-hilarious counterpoint to Mortimer’s buttoned-up and stiff upper lip Victorian-ness, and the sincerity with which she elicits loans and other financial aid to help the poor is both disarming and charismatic.

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The sexual repression of women is quite rightly responsible for a great deal of the darkness and misery that one finds in Victorian literature or in books and films set in the era, and making a romantic comedy with this issue at its heart must have been a challenging idea to bring to fruition. In this regard, Hysteria succeeds very well, and despite the myriad faults and predictability that result from the film’s genre; it is, at the end of the day, a period drama that is extremely funny, touching and just good, clean fun.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Review)

‘Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law. George Rochford will be tried apart, as a peer; the commoners will be tried first. The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring Up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.’

Hilary Mantel is one of those rare writers with such an exquisite ability to tell a story in the present tense that you spend most of her narrative blissfully unaware that she’s doing it at all. It is through this remarkable gift that Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, achieves everything that present tense writing is supposed to achieve, without all that tedious mucking-about in the suspense-driven, overly-staccato and pointlessly exhausting drivel that usually results when an author tries to do this without having the slightest idea how to do it properly. Mantel makes us live Thomas Cromwell, our extraordinary protagonist, and see things not just from his perspective but from within his consciousness – constantly on our toes, constantly watching, constantly questioning, and constantly doing whatever we must, hour to hour, minute to minute, to cement our position as Henry VIII’s new chief minister during the fall of Anne Boleyn, and to always serve our country well. Our lives often come to resemble an out-of-body experience as we twist and turn and adapt to the characteristics of each person we plot with or against. We are helped along by steering clear of strong emotion; doing this helps us to think clearly; but regrettably, like everyone else, we’re human, and sometimes; not often, but sometimes; cracks start to appear; and disappear just as quickly. And in the midst of all this there is England; a country reeling under the uncertainty of a new faith that is also the uncertainty of an old identity; England that is threatened and England that must be governed. And there is always Henry. He needs to be governed too.

Mantel’s Cromwell has the strongest and most distinctive narrative voice since Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day; a charisma so powerful that it seems to rise off the page, but that is also unassuming and incredibly subtle; the charisma of a listener, not a talker; the charisma of a man observing his world from the inside, but also from the outside; an intelligent, cosmopolitan and multilingual blacksmith’s son in the midst of the aristocracy, who understands his surroundings, but will never succeed in getting his surroundings to understand him.

Through Cromwell’s steady and penetrating gaze, the gorgeous furnishings, costumes and pomp and circumstance of the traditional costume drama are stripped right down to the bone, and we understand, while watching the Boleyns’ fall through Cromwell’s eyes, that this period in history was never really about magnificent houses or beautiful costumes at all; but about the people who lived inside them, and what the landscapes beneath their skin actually looked like. The prose is perfect, the characterisation a work of genius, and the enormous cast of characters prodigiously juggled in a way that makes each pawn in its game distinctive and recognisable. A gorgeous, absorbing novel that fully deserves its Booker Prize, it makes those of us who have not read Wolf Hall want to go out and buy it immediately, and those of us who have to wish fervently that The Mirror and the Light was here already.