Friday, December 11, 2015

Miniseries Review - Arthur and George

Arthur and George
Based on the book by Julian Barnes
Release Date: March 16th, 2015
Starring: Martin Clunes, Arsher Ali, Charles Edwards, Art Malik, Emma Fielding, Pearl Chanda, Hattie Morahan, Timothy Watson, Hilary Maclean, Matthew Marsh, CiarĂ¡n Owens, Michael Hadley, Sandra Voe, and Geraldine Alexander
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Arthur Conan Doyle has just buried his wife. Yet he feels he is unworthy of the outpouring of condolence letters and sympathy because while he loved Louisa as best as he could, his heart for sometime has belonged to another. He is mired in guilt and can not seem to put pen to paper. In his copious correspondence his secretary, Woodie, finds a letter that might just invigorate him. People are always writing him assuming that he is equally adept at crime solving as his greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes, is. But this letter from George Edalji is different. Here is a true miscarriage of justice brought about by small town bigotry. If the evidence alone didn't speak for itself, meeting George and seeing this innocent man suffer is enough to make Sir Arthur swing into action. Surprisingly there is much push-back against his investigation. Many shadowy figures don't want the Edalji case brought up. They all site that it was a clear case. George is a degenerate who is out of place and maimed livestock and sent horrific letters to his family and threatened little girls because that's what he is. Arthur sees none of this, while Woodie is a little more skeptical. Yet once they arrive at the scene of the crimes in Wyrley, they start to realize that it's not just about proving George innocent, it's about finding the guilty party. The guilty party who might still be in Wyrley and might take against the great Sir Arthur trying to root him out. Yet the bluff and brash author won't back down from idle threats. For the first time in a long time he has a purpose and the vigor has returned to his life. Woodie sees this, and if it wasn't for Sir Arthur's well-being, he'd view the risks as too parlous. Because there is no doubt that in investigating George's case they are putting their very lives on the line.

If you are looking for a straight up adaptation of Julian Barnes's novel this is thankfully not it. That flawed self-indulgent pseudo-biography has been plundered for it's successful core and made into a story that is more akin to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. While loosely based on true events this adaptation isn't a slave to them. Unlike it's source material, this miniseries understands that adapting truth into fiction should also be fun and entertaining. It should be about Conan Doyle racing through the woods in the pursuit of a killer, not his premature ejaculations. There is fun to be had in taking the truth and spinning it into a fiction that makes good viewing for a Sunday night in. The biggest shift from book to miniseries is that we are given closure. The crimes perpetrated and attributed to George Edalji aren't solved by Conan Doyle in reality, but what kind of mystery is that I ask you? We viewers want some finality, some closure, some feeling of an ending; which we are given here. But oddly, despite how much I disliked the book I wonder if giving this adventure a "satisfying" ending is maybe doing the truth a disservice. The ending makes the whole story lose something of it's reality. Yes, it's more enjoyable, but perhaps they had a duty to make it more believable. There could have still been a more concrete ending while sticking closer to the truth. The diversions they made were occasionally so over-the-top that I found them to rank among the less believable of Conan Doyle's stories. This also did a disservice to how much work Conan Doyle actually put into George's exoneration. He used the tools available to him, mainly the press, but here he used the tools of Holmes and in that regard was more bumbling, less productive. But then again, since his death Arthur Conan Doyle has become a larger than life character, so why not just go with it?

But I don't think that the changes to the truth were intended to undermine it, but just to make it more in line with what mystery aficionados of today expect. The diversions made seemed to serve one goal, to pump up the mystery. We viewers have become very demanding in our blackguards. We want them to have an apparent purpose, to be relentlessly evil, and to have just that edge of crazy that makes hunting them down dangerous. In other words, a creep factor. Oh, and extra points if their lair is full of "otherworldly" symbols and dead bodies, or to be more accurate, parts of dead bodies. This production did all this. You get a hint that the creep factor is rising when the killer is found in a picture the family took outside the vicarage, if you look in an upstairs window. Almost like the ghosts that Conan Doyle believed in so fervently appearing after film is developed. The killer had left their mark indelibly on what should have been a happy and joyful family snapshot. But the scene that really left an impression on me was when Conan Doyle was racing through the woods and stumbled on what could be called a demonic fairy ring, with candles all in a circle and George's sister's doll taking pride of place in the center. This shows us that our perpetrator is truly unhinged. The mounting crimes, dead animals, and progression to actual murder don't actually need the final reveal of the shed of death later to confirm what we already know, Conan Doyle has found a villain worthy of his efforts. He has found Wyrley's own Jack the Ripper.

The creepiness of the culprit wasn't the only thing upped in the production, so were the conspiracies. In actuality Conan Doyle faced bigots and bureaucracy. Here the bureaucracy is more faceless. Nameless men trying to warn him away. Police giving ominous warnings. You get the idea, the standard trope to outsiders when visiting a closed community. While this fed into the mystery this is one clear cut instance that I think they should have stuck closer to the truth. Just look at the world today. Seriously, look at it. The bigots, the hatred, the anger spewing forth not just from the random crazies on the street but from our elected or hope to be elected officials. This is the world we live in and it was like that over a hundred years ago as well! To try to downplay this hatred as organized yet mysterious versus the systematic hatred of the "other" is like trying to deny the truth. It is far more terrifying to live in a world with this directed and specific hatred than a nebulous hatred of this other. In the book, despite George repeatedly saying that this isn't about race, it so clearly is. Or, in this interpretation, it is to an extent... because in the end they make it clear that George was right. The initial attacks against him before the corrupt system became involved were a specific hatred of him for being such a good and favored student. While there is something satisfying in the personal vendetta, here, well, it downplays the real evil. As is oft quoted the idea that all it takes for evil to survive is for one good man to do nothing, well, there's a lot of people doing nothing here, and that is more terrifying than one lunatic with a grudge.

Yet I am very grateful for one change. The downplaying of personal guilt. They quickly get Arthur's guilt over his wife dying and his loving another quite quickly with a few lines of dialogue and a few insights, and that's that. While yes, guilt and his need for diversion did lead Conan Doyle to take on George's case in the first place, it really bogged down the book. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of it. There's only so much self-flagellation you can endure before you grow to hate a character as much as they apparently hate themselves. While this might be the spark, the impetus, by concentrating on the crime we are given a more balanced narrative. I know I didn't sign up for a treatise on self-denial and self-loathing, did you? Some people might like that in their books and movies, I do not. See, I view my reading and watching as something to entertain me. It's escapism, not torturous inner soul-searching. A mystery should be a mystery first and foremost, and the miniseries of Arthur and George is exactly that. A mystery. So if you're looking for something more, something deeper, perhaps the book might be for you? Personally I don't see how the book could be for anyone really, but then again, best sellers lists and must read books often baffle me as to how they ever became as such.

This review of this dramatization wouldn't be complete if I didn't touch just a little on the acting. Oh poor Charles Edwards, always the Watson, never the Holmes. Charles Edwards is probably best known now as Edith's ill-fated beau on Downton Abbey, but to me he is the true Arthur Conan Doyle from his portrayal of him in Murder Rooms. While being the creator of Sherlock Holmes, he played Watson to Joseph Bell's Holmes. Skip forward fifteen years and here he is playing Watson to Conan Doyle's Holmes, in the form Woodie, Conan Doyle's personal secretary. I can't help but feel a little sad at this. He's such a fabulous actor and here he is playing second fiddle again. Not to mention that I read in an interview that Martin Clunes thought that this format of Conan Doyle solving crimes could really work... aw Martin, do you not know of Murder Rooms? Or are you just trying to break Charles Edwards's heart? But even if I do love me my Charles Edwards, there can be no denying that Martin Clunes is the perfect actor to play Conan Doyle later in life. He has that bluff athleticism and bluntness that makes Conan Doyle a more socially acceptable Doc Martin. And was I the only one inwardly giggling and kind of cheering for joy just to hear him talk about the death of his wife Louisa? Yes, I know it's not the Louisa I hate... but still, I have to take my fun where I can find it. As for George, Arsher Ali was well cast, because there is no getting around the fact in print or in film, I can't stand George. And as luck would have it, I really can't stand Arsher Ali. He is SO GOOD at playing someone unlikeable and a bit of a stuck up prick, seriously, watch The Missing and him chain smoking near his child with cystic fibrosis and you'll get where I'm coming from. But these three did not the miniseries make. Filling out the cast with other top notch actors from Art Malik to Emma Fielding to Hattie Morahan made this an enjoyable little mystery that while not overly memorable, will give you something else to think about for a few hours, and thankfully none of that time will be spent thinking about Arthur Conan Doyle's dick. 

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