The Sign of Four (1987)
Created: Sun Jun 20 20:19:44 2010 | Last modified: Sun Jun 20 20:26:13 2010
Starring: Jeremy Brett, Edward Hardwicke, John Thaw, Jenny Seagrove
Produced by: Granada Television
External Link: IMDb
Reading the Wikipedia article on Jeremy Brett, I got the impression that while other actors played the part of Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett actually believed he was Holmes. The character obsessed him day and night to an unhealthy degree and contributed to the decline of his already fragile health. And watching "The Sign of Four", you really do believe in the truth of that statement. To what extent Brett got into the skin of Holmes we can never fathom, but the extent of his artistic triumph can be witnessed in "The Sign of Four", the 1987 TV film created by Granada.
No Holmes fan would require a plot summary so I will dive right into the review. The casting is excellent, probably the best in the whole series featuring Brett. The movie does not deviate from the original story by Conan Doyle to any noticeable extent and yet Holmes purists would still find a little bit to nitpick. The atmosphere is captured brilliantly. And the pacing is much better than "The Hound". The story of the Agra treasure and Jonathan Small needs no added spice to enhance its glory. Sticking to the original plot was wise.
Some of the weaker points, then: the romantic subplot involving Doctor Watson and Miss Mary Morstan is almost entirely avoided. Maybe this was a wise choice as Edward Hardwicke somehow does not seem comfortable in the role as a passive admirer/lover. David Burke (with his expressiveness and liveliness) would have done a far better job at that. Having said that, Hardwicke excels at letting Holmes hog the screen presence. This is somewhat similar to the role played by Dr. Watson in the later novels and short stories. However, leaving out the romance was a bit of a let-down, particular as Miss Morstan ends up being Dr. Watson's wife in the Holmes canon.
The murder mystery is only a minor part of it, however. What really works is the overall scheme of the story. You are not too bothered by the lack of suspense or thrill - what you want is the overall flavour of the adventure on the screen. In many ways it is a manner of visualizing the words penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and widely read by millions across the world to this date.
The Granada TV series, then, is more about the connoisseur who wants to savour the flavour of Sherlock Holmes rather than the average thrill seeker who wants a dose of mystery and action and wants it in rapid-fire doses. None of the original Holmes mysteries are suitable for action-oriented movies. And wisely, the producers chose not to emphasize that aspect. The pacing, as a result might seem odd to some, but those who have learned to read, love and savour Holmes will find it perfectly faithful to the original narrative style of the author.
I give it a full 5/5 rating. Well worth watching, if only for the brilliant performance of John Thaw as Jonathan Small.