One would think that a documentary entitled Elementary My Dear Watson: The Man Behind Sherlock Holmes would provide the viewer with much tasty information about Arthur Conan Doyle. Unfortunately, the said documentary is much more revealing about its writer and director, Philip Gardiner, whose fixation on the occult informs the film, sometimes to the detriment of the subject at hand.
To be sure, Conan Doyle was a student of the occult and spiritualism, believed in fairies and publicly advocated for related causes. However, Gardiner presents the occult as the defining element of Doyle's life, the primary impetus of all of his fiction, even such as the Sherlock Holmes stories, which are not concerned with anything outside of the workaday world. There are two films included on the disc: Elementary My Dear Watson and The Madness of Sherlock Holmes: Arthur Conan Doyle and the Realm of the Faeries. Both are approximately one hour in length, and overlap in content considerably. For the purposes of this review, they will be discussed collectively.
Doyle's biography is skimmed over rather sketchily, with many gaps. Great significance is given to the fact that he attended a Jesuit university, and later left the Catholic faith, and later still joined the Freemasons. This information is supposed to darkly hint at something, perhaps Doyle's lifelong obsession with the occult. Perhaps something darker. The filmmakers rarely go beyond hinting, though, so it's anyone's guess. Many tenuous connections are made, between Doyle and such figures as Aleister Crowley and Ian Fleming, the latter of which is said to have "similar circles of friends". Vagueness of this sort is rife in the film, which is full of such constructions as "some biographers assert" or "there is evidence to suggest" without any reference to which biographers are doing the suggesting or what the evidence is. When such things are being implied as that Doyle used cocaine, was a member of the Rosicrucians or that his mother lived adulterously with a lover for decades, a reference citation would be appreciated.
The unwillingness to cite sources is not the only thing that gives the impression of sloppiness. The only person interviewed for the film is the writer, director and narrator of the film Philip Gardiner. Weren't there one or two Conan Doyle experts or biographers who would be willing to go on camera to discuss their subject? Just to break up the monotony? One filmed interview of Doyle is used numerous times, and once or twice his letters or writings are quoted. More original sources of this sort would have been very helpful, but either they were not available, or the producers decided not to make the effort to procure them. There is a lot of stock footage on display, as well as numerous clips from Sherlock Holmes films. There are long gaps in the narration, with the viewer left to watch unrelated images of a Victorian London street, or Gardiner himself filling a pipe in his living room, while ghostly little girls play ring around the rosy.
Overall, Elementary My Dear Watson is slow moving, dull, intellectually sloppy and presumptuous. Gardiner is constantly imputing motives to Doyle with no cited evidence to back up his claims. He is happier to insinuate and walk away. Gardiner reads occultism into every aspect of Doyle's life, harming his case rather than helping it by greatly overplaying his hand. It is evident to the viewer that Gardiner is the one fixated on the occult, and that he glosses over anything in Doyle's life that might not in some way turn on that aspect. Because of this narrow focus, much of Doyle's biography is left a mystery. What were his wives like? (The film mentions that he married twice, but neglects to say that his first marriage ended with his wife Louisa's death.) Who were his close friends? (His friendship with Houdini is discussed briefly, but surely this was not his only friend.) Did he play golf? Did he cheat at cards? Was he partial silly practical jokes? Nothing of this kind is dealt with in more than a cursory manner. The film fails to deliver a comprehensive portrait of its subject, and only annoys with its constant harping on the occult. This is one to skip.
The video is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and is sufficient to the task, which isn't very demanding. Most of what we see is stock footage from the turn of the 20th century, and clips from old black and white films. The cheesy CG sequences are distractingly bad, but no quality issues with the video are visible.
The sound is Dolby 2 channel, and is also sufficient but not impressive. The dialogue is always audible and clear, taking into account the quality issues with some of the archival footage which are not the fault of the producers of this film. Subtitles and alternate language tracks are not available.
There are no extras present on the disc.
Elementary My Dear Watson: The Man Behind Sherlock Holmes is a mess of a film. It is slow moving and poorly paced, sloppy in its citation of sources and somewhat reckless with its implications. It does not provide the viewer with a comprehensive idea of the person of Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, the film casts aside everything except Doyle's interest in the occult, an interest seemingly shared with writer/director Philip Gardiner. This narrow focus, and the attempt to jam even unrelated aspects of Doyle's life into the occult box, is off putting and annoying. This film is a great disappointment.