Igor Maslennikov’s Soviet-era adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books for television are among Russian TV’s most successful productions of all time. Fans of the show are positively hardcore (the IMDb rating stands at 8.9/10), and it is certainly one of the most unusual renderings of the great Baker Street detective.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes & Dr Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles, or Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona: Sobaka Baskerviley, features Conan Doyle’s most famous story: that of young Sir Henry Baskerville (Nikita Mikhalkov), recently come from Canada to take possession of Baskerville Hall in Devonshire following the untimely death of his uncle, Sir Charles. Sir Charles’s superstitious fear of a demonic Hound that is supposed to have dogged his family for centuries seems justified when the footprints of a massive canine are spotted near his lifeless body.
Sir Charles’s friend, young Dr Mortimer (Evgeniy Steblov), fears that the heir will meet the same fate and so calls on Sherlock Holmes (Vasili Livanov) and Dr Watson (Vitali Solomin) in the hope that they can solve the mystery and put an end to the Baskerville curse.
The only problem with The Hound of the Baskervilles, in any medium, is how little it features Sherlock Holmes. It is a ripping yarn, but any newcomer to the plot hoping for a large helping of deerstalker and pipe is likely to be deeply disappointed. The tale’s central figure is Watson, a character who can so easily be somewhat drab and colourless, and so television and film adaptations generally require an actor with a strong presence in that role which, sadly, Vitali Solomin is not. Compare Edward Hardwicke in the BBC version (or Martin Freeman in the more recent update), whose plucky portrayal of the erstwhile medic makes that production a hugely enjoyable experience. Solomin, unfortunately, is positively grim.
Maslennikov’s version is, of all versions, the most faithful to the material, following the plot of the novel like, well, like the Hound on the heels of Clan Baskerville. While this might please the more dedicated purists, it means that the film drags terribly. One wants so badly for it to just pick up the pace a bit (this is a thriller, after all), but this hopelessly devoted fidelity to the source and the monotony of watching Solomin dry for the better part of two hours becomes as bleak as a Russian winter – ultimately, it just gets on one’s nerves.
It is a pity, because Livanov’s Sherlock Holmes is delightful. Every bit as quixotic as Jeremy Brett or Benedict Cumberbatch, when he is on screen the pace skips along and the whole drama once more becomes lively. If this were the case for more than 30-odd minutes of the film, it would be a treasure indeed.
What is fascinating, though, is discovering how a Soviet director presents such a quintessentially English story. For a country that relishes adapting the literary works of others, it’s a genuinely queer experience having the tables turned. One gets to wondering how a French audience would view a BBC version of Madame Bovary, for example, or a Russian one a Channel 4 drama of The Brothers Karamazov.
The austere Russian countryside that stands in for Devon could not be less English, and the bright red postboxes in the village – the only splash of colour for miles – signifying (nay, screaming) “Englishness” are positively comical. Similarly, Sir Henry Baskerville’s (Nikita Mikhalkov’s) North American roots are signposted by an almost over-the-top cowboy motif and a bonhomie verging on psychosis. In fairness, though, Rina Zelyonaya’s Mrs Hudson is every bit as adorable as Rosalie Williams’s, and Svetlana Krychkova as the babbling housekeeper Mrs Barrymore is very well cast.
In all, as a novelty for die-hard Holmes fans and film buffs this is a curio that must be viewed, even if only once. At 145 minutes, though, the production is much too long and dull to ever become a treasured classic.