Review: Like Sherlock himself, “The Abominable Bride” is both brilliant and a bit too clever for its own good

A new year, a new episode of Sherlock – the BBC’s hit modern day take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective, masterminded by showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. And this New Year’s Day special, “The Abominable Bride”, comes with a twist: unlike the contemporary setting of the series proper, it transports Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Martin Freeman’s John Watson back to the Victorian era setting of Conan Doyle’s original stories.

It’s a fun conceit, and one that allows Gatiss and Moffat a 93-minute platform to showcase how they might’ve tackled a more conventional approach to their source material. As you might expect, the result is a fizzing, subversive adventure headlined by one of the best double acts in recent memory. And yet, for all that, “The Abominable Bride” is also a bit like Sherlock himself: it’s brilliant, but occasionally a bit too clever for its own good.

What is Sherlock: The Abominable Bride about?

Following a quick recap of the previous three seasons of Sherlock, “The Abominable Bride” rewinds the clock to Victorian England. Here, we encounter alternate versions of Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John (Martin Freeman) – or Holmes and Watson, as they’re known here – on the trail of a murderous, apparently undead bride stalking London’s wealthy gentlemen.

As supernatural happenings continue to occur, Holmes and Watson are forced to confront the possibility that their quarry might actually be supernatural in nature – something that shakes Holmes to his hyper-rational core. Could the scientific method of deduction he’s based his life around be wrong?

And all the while, old enemies like Moriarty (Andrew Scott) lurk in the shadows, suggesting a greater and more terrifying game is afoot that will require the help of Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Gatiss) and Watson’s wife Mary (Amanda Abbington) to uncover…

A treasure trove of Sherlock Holmes lore

At heart, “The Abominable Bride” is feature-length exercise in Sherlock Holmes fan service. Between nods to the Conan Doyle canon (The Strand Magazine! Plus-sized Mycroft!) and call backs to the continuity of the show itself (the Victorian era equivalent of Speedy’s café is my personal favourite), Moffat and Gatiss have created a treasure trove of Holmesian lore – although, happily, the episode remains accessible to more casual Sherlock fans.

The period setting of “The Abominable Bride” doesn’t bog down the series’ trademark visual flair, either. Director Douglas MacKinnon works in everything from Sherlock’s iconic “detective” vision (smartly reimagined for the 1800s) to the usual audacious camera moves and editing flourishes, all of which – one ill-judged 360-degree transition effect not withstanding – elevate this special above other, stuffier Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

Admittedly, things come a bit unstuck when it’s time to unravel the mystery of the Abominable Bride herself. This revelation feels rushed, as if Moffat and Gatiss are less concerned with the mystery at hand and more with the Inception-lite elements that creep into the narrative towards the home stretch. Worse still, these more out-there aspects of “The Abominable Bride” – while clearly signposted and deftly executed – nearly sink the series’ carefully calibrated sense of hyper-reality.

Fortunately, the sheer brazenness of how Moffat and Gatiss try to transcend the tropes of the well-worn detective story is enough to keep these less satisfying parts from derailing the entire endeavour. Well, that and the humour. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments in “The Abominable Bride” – one memorable scene in the Diogenes Club is a side-splitting marriage of subtitles and physical comedy – that remind us that we watch Sherlock less for the at-times ludicrous plots, and more to spend time with our two lead characters.

Tackling the gender politics of the Victorian era

Part of this is down to the razor-sharp writing by Moffat and Gatiss, but mostly, it’s down to the knockout performances by Cumberbatch and Freeman, and the sparkling chemistry between them. What’s even more fun this time around is that the pair get to reinvent their now-definitive characterisations of Sherlock and John, respectively, tweaking their portrayals to suit the period.

And although the special lets Cumberbatch take his deepest dive yet into what subconscious forces drive Holmes, it’s Freeman’s new take on Watson that arguably leaves the biggest impression. That’s because the John of “The Abominable Bride” is – as a product of his time – an out-and-out sexist, something Moffat and Gatiss really dig into.

Yes, “The Abominable Bride” is set in the Victorian era, but we’re viewing it through a decidedly modern lens; its story tackles the issues of yesteryear to comment on the issues of today. Mostly, it’s a story about gender inequality, a theme woven throughout the screenplay to varying levels of success, depending on your mileage.

On the one hand Moffat and Gatiss deserve kudos for their ambition in this regard. On the other hand, there are some moments – like when Sherlock mansplains the issues facing women to women, before “allowing” them to win after deducing that the patriarchy is a Very Bad Thing – that reek of our writers’ biting off a bit more than they can chew.

A fun, flawed addition to the Sherlock canon

Yet despite the occasional narrative or thematic overreach, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride is still a cracking good time. Indeed, thanks to the fan service-filled script by Moffat and Gatiss, the vibrant direction by Mackinnon, and the dynamite interplay between Cumberbatch and Freeman, it’s yet another fun – if admittedly flawed – addition to the Sherlock canon. By the time the credits of the New Year special roll, the real mystery for fans to contend with is how they can possibly wait for Sherlock Season 4 to arrive!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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