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Sherlock - A Scandal In Belgravia - Advance Review * 08 December 2011

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Sherlock - A Scandal in Belgravia displays all the confidence of a returning champion boxer. Stepping into the ring with nothing to prove, it just has an incredible burning desire to keep expanding and bettering itself. The simple fact that it floors all other television opposition this year, and then continues to get stronger as it goes on, is testament to the cast and crew working incredible hard to bring us a piece of entertainment that completely surpasses all expectations.

After resolving that pesky cliffhanger in unexpected, yet perfect form, its clear that this episode is several levels above the first series. Everything about it feels superior, from the performances of all the returning cast, to Steven Moffat's taut script, Paul McGuigan's cinematic direction, and the expansive, dramatic scoring from David Arnold and Michael Price.

Steven Moffat's script continues in the same vein as series one, treading a fine line between genuine hilarity and some absolute darkness, while sticking incredibly true to the original story and enlarging its themes, and also having a supreme amount of fun with the additions and alterations. Throughout, there are several nods to canon that would be a crime to reveal, as Steven Moffat implored the audience in the Q&A afterwards, but they are deployed in striking ways that maximise their appearance. Its narratively complex, clever stuff - a tangled web of lies and deceit that takes in very large themes and extremely scary ideas and spins them into a cohesive whole by the close. In terms of narrative, its the strongest of all the Sherlock episodes seen thus far. And the quotability is once again through the roof.

Benedict Cumberbatch is settled in as Sherlock Holmes, that much is clear. While there is no disputing he was immediately perfect with the cutting asides and arrogance of his deductions in series one, here we see a softening in the character without him losing his edge, the clear sense of an unconscious evolution thanks to the addition of more people to his life besides his brother - whether he is aware of it or not, he now explicitly cares for the emotions and wellbeing of others, most particularly John and, quite strikingly in one scene, Mrs Hudson. Its reflected in genuine concern and at times palpable anger, the need to correct wrongs on those close to him by possibly any means.

Martin Freeman somehow improves upon series one here. Goodness knows how. Not quite playing the straight man, not quite playing the comic relief, his John Watson is possibly the most multifaceted portrayal of the character onscreen, here definitely showing a form of equality with Sherlock, and at times a physical superiority. The offscreen friendship between himself and Benedict Cumberbatch is an incredible boon, and the strength that gives his performance in this episode, when John finds himself dealing with the conundrum of a depressed Sherlock at the midpoint, positively shines - it feels genuine.

Most pleasing is the expansion of Mycroft Holmes. Mark Gatiss gets a far larger onscreen role here than his cumulative screen time in series one, and gives a performance to match that. He gives a great sense of the superior, yet caring older brother, displaying in one striking scene with Cumberbatch what could only be termed as brotherly love - if it wasn't for who they were. And later, he displays the ferocious anger of the elder sibling, when the younger knocks down a tower of building blocks he has very carefully constructed. It is a remarkable performance that lifts some enigma away from Mycroft, but enriches him all the same, giving a greater sense of his importance and potency in not just the development of Sherlock Holmes, but also the British Government.

The other supporting returning cast give sterling work. Una Stubbs gets more to do here as Mrs Hudson than in series one, developing the maternal warmth that was clear from the start, and both the boys return that in kind. The sense is of the growth of a family. Louise Brealey is giving Molly Hooper a developing physical strength, beginning to stand up for herself more while retaining the sense of a nervous fluttering bird. It will be interesting to see her evolution through the remaining episodes. Andrew Scott retains his sense of omnipresence, despite our knowledge of his identity now. We can't say anymore. Of all the returning cast, it might be unfair to say Rupert Graves is slightly short changed as Lestrade in this episode, but he seemed to serve in a more functionary role here. It is however, only the first episode in the series of course, so we look forward to his bigger role later on.

And finally for the cast, we have to come to Lara Pulver as the new addition, THE Woman herself, Irene Adler. Forever misunderstood in most other portrayals, here Irene is a total match for Sherlock Holmes, an equal fencing partner. It reflects the tone of the original story exactly, the sense of mental cat and mouse between the pair forming the basis of something far more complex than a mere Hollywood romance. The opposite side of the same coin to Sherlock, Irene is sexy, intelligent and quite dangerous, the strongest female character onscreen in a very long time. Though at times she skirts of the edge of negativity through her actions, she is literally able to claw her way back through sheer guile. She is quite simply, perfect.

In terms of the technical, Paul McGuigan has pulled off something remarkable with this episode. Seeing it on a big screen may have had something to do with it, but the only way to define the entire thing is 'cinematic'. It ceases to feel like television and more like one of the best unreleased motion pictures out this year. The remarkable visual tricks that were on display in series one are now amped up to astonishing levels, the deductions now more complex and striking. Slow motion is also deployed to striking effect, as well as some practical visual tricks. The cinematography is richer, more colourful and altogether warmer throughout, and Charlie Phillips' punchy impactful editing is in full force. Aurally the episode is a treat, the score expanded from series one by David Arnold and Michael Price, retaining the original themes while adding a new one for Adler, and pumping up the action cues with deeper instrumentation, lending everything a grander feel. And yes, there is even more prominent work for violin.

To close, A Scandal in Bohemia is one of the biggest and most famous Conan Doyle stories. In our opinion, A Scandal in Belgravia is the biggest and strongest episode of Sherlock seen thus far. The ultimate display of mind games between the sexes, its richer, more confident, more complex, more surprising, more emotional, funnier, darker, and somehow displaying  a greater degree of tension than anything in series one, it sets a high benchmark for the other two episodes in series two. The greatest question is, when it explodes onto television screens in the very early New Year, what other drama onscreen in 2012 has a hope of matching it?

After the screening, we finally got a chance to speak to Benedict Cumberbatch, at long last. After introducing ourselves, he asked us simply 'what did you think?'

And by mutual agreement, he and Sherlockology spoke a single word: Tremendous.

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