Arthur Conan Doyle’s amazingly perceptive detective, Sherlock Holmes, is one of the most-iconic figures in history. His classic profile is recognized by people all over the world, from American toddlers to jungle Hottentots (maybe, I might be exaggerating). He’s been the subject of countless novels and short stories, not even counting the ones written by Doyle himself, has appeared in dozens of film, radio and television adaptations, and is reintroduced to audiences with generational clockwork. The character was so popular that even Doyle “killing” him in The Final Problem didn’t deter readers from demanding more. Thus, he was forced to bring him back in The Empty House, in which it was revealed that the great detective had merely faked his own death (cruelly allowing his close friend and biographer, Dr. John Watson, to mourn him for three years).
With the recent big-screen success of Guy Ritchie’s take on the character, Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the title character and Jude Law as one of the only age-appropriate on-screenWatsons, there’s arisen a new interest in the character. Already a sequel is in the works and the “mockbuster” production house, The Asylum, has just released their own unique interpretation. So Holmes may forever endure and audiences will forever wonder what makes him tick.
One aspect of the character that was purposefully removed from the new movie is nearly the sole focus of Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per Cent Solution, namely Holmes use of cocaine. Initially used as recreation to stimulate his mind, it’s been implied in several of the Doyle stories that Holmes became addicted to the substance, though this never became a crucial plot point. Meyer, however, decides to explore the possibility of this addiction and his subsequent recovery in both his novel and his adapted screenplay. Set in 1891, this is the supposed true story behind Holmes’ “Great Hiatus”, wherein the world thought him dead. Having succumbed to addition, Holmes has developed a paranoid obsession with his former mathematics instructor, Professor James Moriarty, a man he describes to Watson as a “Napoleon of Crime”. For his part, Professor Moriarty seems baffled by the harassment and tells the good Doctor that he will regretfully pursue legal action against the detective if the matter is not resolved. Therefore, to rescue Holmes legal and professional reputation, Watson takes the detective to Austria in the hopes that great alienist, Dr. Sigmund Freud, can help him overcome his addiction. In the meantime, game is afoot when one of Freud’s patients is kidnapped by a Turkish Pasha and a demented German Baron.
There are so many things going on in the favor of The Seven Per Cent Solution that it’s a shame to see the one thing that goes against it nearly scuttles it completely. The good—in fact, the outstanding—is Alan Arkin’s wonderful portrayal of Freud. Down to earth but whimsical, Arkin brings the legendary psychoanalyst to life, whether swinging a watch in front of Holmes to get to the root of his addition or playing the evil Baron in what may be perhaps the only exciting tennis match ever filmed. Equally terrific is the climax aboard a moving train, complete with sword fight atop the cars and some hair-raising stunt work. In the “Okay” department is Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson. Though Duvall avoids the Nigel Bruce route of portraying Watson as a dottering dullard, he over compensates with an accent that makes him sound more British than any of the actual Brits. (He out-Brits James Mason in Murder By Decree, for pete’s sake, and Mason was the most British person ever to roam the empire, outside, perhaps, of Queen Victoria.) He also over-affects a limp representing Watson’s war wound (which, even in the Doyle stories, is occassionally located in his shoulder).
The tragically dreadful is Nichol Williamson as the central character. For all the cool points he racked up with film nerds as Merlin in Excalibur, Williamson loses them all as a pop-eyed and nearly hysterical Holmes. Studying this performance, you’re less convinced that Holmes is a coke-head than you’re convinced he might actually be a meth-addict. Williamson’s Holmes never speaks—every sentence is an announcement of the most vital importance. Ordering lunch would sound like, “By God, I will have the steak! And Good Lord, Watson! Pass me that salt!” There isn’t an ounce of nuance to Williamson’s Holmes and he becomes tiring almost immediately, draining a lot of the fun out of the movie.
As is often the case with Sherlock Holmes adventures, the mystery is the least interesting aspect of the story. Just as one doesn’t watch a James Bond movie to admire the villain’s cunning plan to dominate the world, you don’t involve yourself in a Holmes story for the intricate mystery but, rather, to watch Holmes unravel the plot. A lot of that enjoyment gets lost in Williamson’s bluster.By the time we get to the crucial source of Holmes’ reason for taking cocaine and his obsession with Moriarty, we barely care. But fortunately Arkin keeps things afloat and holds your interest until they get onto the train. So it isn’t a total wash.
On the other hand, it might be a moot point. Though it shows up occassionally on television (beware of heavily-edited versions that somehow manages to render the mystery completely incomprehensible, rather than almost), The Seven Per Cent Solution is available on a massively expensive out of print DVD, a moderately expensive and ugly-looking VHS, or a moderately-priced Region 2 DVD import for those of you with region-free players. (Or you could, I don't know, pick up Meyer's original novel.) Maybe with the former Mr. Madonna’s movie performing well in the theaters, we might see a rerelease of this one sometime in the forseeable future.