Holmes is marked from Act 1, Scene 1, and we're not surprised 90 minutes later, when, just as things should be wrapping up, our hero gets a crisply noble look on his face and proceeds to hike to the top of a picturesque waterfall for no reason other than to answer the story's vague momentum. It's hardly a shock when we hear that he has tumbled, with his archenemy, Moriarty, hundreds of feet to the chasm below.
And it's even less bewildering when, back in London, just before the actors claim their well-deserved bows, good old Watson delights in his biggest astonishment yet no mean feat for a man who looks, for about 30 seconds, as though he has just that realized someone is throwing him a surprise party.
In 2007, Sherlock Holmes most certainly is dead, no matter how many death traps he encountered a century ago. The program reminds us that more than 100 years have passed since Arthur Conan Doyle first killed him off and then, heeding an outraged public, hauled him back from the cliff exactly the sort of concession to popular taste that artists have, in the intervening decades, learned to stop thinking is even a concession. Fact is, Doyle's inventions are inseparable from his concessions the genius is bound up in both. Nothing that Dietz changes to make the story more accessible and Holmes more relatable is any more vulgar than what Doyle himself attempted (or allowed William Gillette to get away with).
This means I can forgive the opera-star love interest and the anachronistic reference to Holmes' "emotional armor." But no romance or shopworn psychology makes up for the fact that we know our way around these stories as we know the houses we grew up in. Even if you've never read Doyle, the twists here have been so absorbed by our culture that they're simply plot points to check off a list.
Fortunately, superlative acting, beautiful sets, ravishing costumes and a grand, gloomy London almost carry the day. The first half is a memorable gallop through Holmes' hit parade: streets thick with fog, flights of inspired deduction, that sense of crime as a puzzle for his and Watson's enjoyment. The story is stitched from Doyle's "The Final Problem" and "A Scandal in Bohemia," with the love interest worked in; for an hour or so, director David Ira Goldstein spirits us joyfully along, hitting upon more than enough laughs and drama to keep us leaning forward. The early glimpses of Laurence Ballard's Moriarty are especially thrilling, establishing a menace that fades after intermission, when the character is reduced to bumbling.
Mark Robbins plays Holmes as more man than legend, but wonderfully he makes it clear that this man is thrilled that he might be a legend. Doling out deductions, his Holmes measures his pauses like an ace bartender pouring a draft: smooth and precise, not letting any air in, always with an element of performance. His Holmes actually moves us, particularly in the way he pales a little between adventures but flushes with life when the game is afoot.
If Holmes is a bit of a showman, Watson is his audience, maybe even his apostle. Utterly devoted to Holmes and struck dumb with amazement about three times a minute, Watson can come across as a giddy naïf a Sancho Panza not in on the joke. As played by Victor Talmadge, however, he, too, is a man, a successful physician, who just happens to have the world's most exciting BFF. His pleasure is infectious, and we can't help but feel it.
Until we don't, about halfway through the second half, when we're always a step ahead of the story. And especially at the end, when the whole show chugs ahead too quickly to a surprise that everyone knows is coming. Dietz's attempt to gin up some suspense by holding Holmes' death over us feels cheap. A copy of copies instead of the stirring original, the end here resembles nothing so much as everything that's ever been ripped off Holmes.
It should sting, at the climax, when Holmes parts from Watson. It doesn't, though, because we've already parted with Watson ourselves. As he wanders agog through what's left of the plot, worried that Holmes has died, all that's left for us is to envy him.
We've seen it all before. He hasn't.