'Arthur & George': TV Review

Arthur & George Still - H 2015
Courtesy of PBS
A mostly middling mystery.

Whodunit author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle turns detective in PBS' three-part miniseries.

Sherlockians are surely familiar with the bit of life-meets-art lore involving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of that most intuitive of crime-solving characters, Sherlock Holmes. In 1907, Doyle came to the aid of George Edalji, a Parsi English solicitor who had served three years in prison for his purported part in a series of livestock slashings known as the Great Wyrley Outrages. The celebrated author assumed a Holmesian role, visiting crime scenes and interviewing witnesses, and his involvement resulted in Edalji’s pardon, though not complete proof of his innocence.

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Writer Julian Barnes fictionalized the Doyle-Edalji case in his 2005 novel Arthur & George, though the book also delved into the death of Sir Arthur’s first wife, Louisa Hawkins, and his relationship with his second, Jean Leckie. This PBS Masterpiece series, airing over three consecutive Sundays, is a dutiful adaptation of the novel, compelling in parts, though never satisfying as a whole.

In terms of overall tone, director Stuart Orme and teleplay writer Ed Whitmore are clearly trying to ape Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss popular Sherlock. The case — along with the boisterous, game-is-afoot emotions it inspires — is the thing. Doyle himself, played by the excellent Martin Clunes, admits early on that he was in a blue funk until his loyal, Watson-like manservant Alfred Wood (Charles Edwards) brought the Edalji matter to his attention. It’s just the thing he needs to take his mind off of the recent demise of Louisa, played in a too-rushed scene by Geraldine Alexander.

Indeed, Doyle’s personal life seems beside the point through much of this adaptation, which makes every moment that he isn’t investigating the Edalji case feel like a drag. (It’s a shame since Clunes has a sweet chemistry with the appealingly wide-eyed Hattie Morahan, who plays Doyle’s platonic “mistress,” and later wife, Leckie.) The real love story, as the title suggests, is between the author and the aloof Edalji (Arsher Ali). You can sense the charge Doyle feels, as if one of the very plots he might have concocted for Holmes has suddenly leapt off the page. There’s even a real-world analogue for the great detective’s perpetual nemesis, Moriarty.

There’s certainly plenty of Hound of the Baskervilles-esque sturm und drang: fog-shrouded forests, ritualistic threats (from anonymous letters to a creepy doll posed in a circle of candles), and a mysterious stranger in a cloak who, in the series’ strangest scene, turns a weirdly sinister cartwheel. Yet as several characters note, life is often messier than fiction, and Doyle soon unearths a more real-world horror in the form of the racism that likely put Edalji in his predicament.

Initially it seems that Orme and Whitmore are brushing away this troubling thematic thread by having Edalji himself deny that race in any way played a part with his incarceration. But it quickly becomes apparent that this is a kind of defensive naivete; bigotry is more easily dealt with as a phantom villain than a systemic reality. The best scene in the series sees Doyle confront the openly xenophobic Chief Constable (Matthew Marsh), whose transparent narrow-mindedness acts as an odd kind of proof against his involvement in Edalji’s misfortune. The real enemies are those who keep their hatred under wraps, practicing it in the shadows of their own diseased souls.

Would that the resolution of the mystery have better resonated with its potent subtext. Fact vs. fiction again: The actual Edalji case concluded with plenty of loose ends. In contrast, Arthur & George climaxes in a violent comeuppance that wraps everything up way too neatly, and has the unfortunate effect of making Doyle come off like the colonialist savior to Edalji’s noble savage. It is, as Holmes himself might say, balderdash and codswallop.      

Twitter: @keithuhlich