Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
(2016; dir. Douglas MacKinnon)—Sherlock co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have a problem: they’ve outsmarted themselves, and they don’t know what to do or where to turn next. What else could explain the fact that three of the four Sherlock episodes since 2012’s splendid “The Reichenbach Fall,” including “The Abominable Bride,” either directly or indirectly address the fiendishly complicated rooftop standoff that ended with the apparent deaths of Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his arch-nemesis James Moriarty (Andrew Scott)? In “The Empty Hearse,” 2014’s Series Three premiere, Gatiss and Moffat did an honorable job providing a winking, plausible-enough explanation for Sherlock’s survival. But Moriarty’s demise and subsequent resurrection at the end of “His Last Vow” has apparently left the two showrunners as troubled as it has left Sherlock himself.
That’s not a good thing. But before it stumbles into a flashback/flash-forward-heavy mind palace walk that’s both too obvious and too clever in retrospect, “The Abominable Bride”—which topped the box office in China last weekend—is a funny, energetic and creepy account of the Victorian-era Holmes’ most perplexing case. And one of the most pleasurable elements of this return to the character’s imaginary roots is Cumberbatch’s restrained re-re-imagining of the Holmes persona. He exchanges his modern-day Sherlock’s high-functioning sociopathic hostility for a less confrontational yet equally supercilious set of manners and witticisms. This new-old Sherlock plays a fine, well-tuned violin, sucks at his pipe with lip-smacking self-satisfaction, and glides through prickly encounters with Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) on a magic carpet of pragmatic, faux-prissy erudition.
In late 19th century England, Freeman’s Watson is less of a victim of Holmes’ whims and more of a collaborator. He’s also earned a measure of fame by publishing stories about his adventures with Holmes in the penny dreadfuls. Some provocative, confusing Don Quixote-esque mix-ups ensue when Watson presses Holmes about his relationship status and Holmes deflects inquiries with philosophical pontifications plagiarized from Watson’s stories. Who’s writing whom here, anyway? Larger and more menacing destabilization appears quickly enough, and soon Holmes and Watson find themselves on opposite sides of the old “ghost/not a ghost” debate when they are asked to solve the mystery of an undead bride who keeps returning to wreak havoc on unsuspecting men.
“The Abominable Bride” is perhaps overloaded with divertissements, including a Diogenes Club encounter starring a Taft-fat Mycroft Holmes (played by Gatiss himself) ringed with puddings and meats, a memorable exchange about the foolishness of the “secret twins” theory, and all kinds of nods and nudges directed at both Sherlock Holmes the myth and Sherlock Holmes the man. Yet by the end, this tenth feature-length Sherlock installment is a pleasurable if failed dramatic experiment that’s obsessed with its central character’s own failures. It’s also an addictive mess that provides many fleeting pleasures before examining the messes that addiction makes of most people’s lives. Here is the final problem with “The Abominable Bride”: as Gatiss and Moffat continue to expand and deepen Sherlock’s psychological profile, Sherlock’s ability to construct an exciting, rewarding mystery that can handle its inter-textual baggage and its own recent history continues to falter.