Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia review

It has been nearly 17 long months since the first season of the Steven Moffat/Mark Gatiss-penned reboot of Sherlock left us with a literally explosive cliffhanger as Holmes faced off against his evil alter ego Jim Moriarty for the first time. As this new three-part second season begins we return to the scene of this climactic showdown to see its resolution, before launching into a story of sex, scandal and a mind-bending mystery which pits Sherlock and John Watson against a female foe who proves to be their equal at every turn: ‘The Woman’, dominatrix Irene Adler.

Spoilers from here on in, naturally …

The story

We solve crimes, I blog about it and he forgets his pants.

We last saw Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) confronting Moriarty (Andrew Scott) at a swimming pool with Holmes threatening to shoot a suicide bomber’s vest rigged with explosives while Moriarty had snipers training their sights on him. The tension is shattered as Moriarty’s phone rings – his ringtone, amusingly, the Bee Gees’ Stayin Alive – and he calls off the stand-off to deal with a promising new consultation with Irene Adler (Lara Pulver). She is engaged in a potentially scandalous sexual relationship with an undisclosed female member of the royal family, which results in Holmes and Watson being summoned to Buckingham Palace to discreetly recover incriminating photos.

A first encounter with Adler results in her seeing straight through Sherlock’s disguise, although John’s setting of a false fire to raise the alarm allows him to discern the location of her safe. This contains the camera-phone he is seeking and which she claims she wants to keep only as insurance rather than use for the purpose of extortion. Irene drugs Sherlock and escapes with her phone, but not before she has delivered a damning and insightful assessment of his character:

I think you’re damaged, delusional and believe in a higher power. In your case, it’s yourself.

Lara Pulver as Irene Adler (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Some months later Sherlock is hosting a grim Christmas party at 221b Baker Street when he receives a present containing Adler’s phone. He immediately deduces she must be dead, and a quick visit to the morgue appears to confirm this. However, she later reveals herself to John as still being alive, while Holmes deals with an intrusion by CIA agents looking for the phone in non-lethal but ruthless fashion. Holmes unsuccessfully tries three times to deduce the four-character passcode to Irene’s phone – he is constantly met by the message ‘I am XXXX locked’ – and it is not until she herself shows up at 221b that he finally gains access to a snippet of code which, at her behest, he rapidly recognises within a matter of seconds:

There’s a margin for error but I’m pretty sure there’s a 747 leaving Heathrow tomorrow at 6:30 in the evening for Baltimore. Apparently it’s going to save the world. I’m not sure how that can be true but give me a moment – I’ve only been on the case for eight seconds.

However, Sherlock is unaware that he and brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) have been played by Adler (with the assistance of Moriarty) and manoeuvred into an embarrassing situation where she is able to name her price. All looks lost until Sherlock reveals that he has deduced Irene had developed feelings for him, and suddenly realises that the answer is in plain sight and her passcode must be S-H-E-R, as in ‘I am Sher-locked’, foiling her plan and removing her life insurance. Mycroft later reports that she has been found executed by terrorists in Pakistan – however, one final revelation shows us that Sherlock actually rescued her in person and faked her death a second time.

Tips of the (deerstalker) hat to the original tales

With co-creator Moffat writing this opening episode, Sherlock returns in top form with its customary swagger, mind-blowing deductions and its visual signature of using on-screen text to help us see into the workings of Holmes’ mind. Last season’s cliffhanger ending is disposed of quickly with a massive side-step – a Moffat trademark, as viewers of Doctor Who will recognise – which segues neatly into the main story. The first third of the episode – and indeed its title – borrows heavily from A Scandal in Bohemia, with Adler in possession of photographic evidence which would scandalise (in the case of the original story) the Bohemian royal family.

Other elements of Bohemia are also in evidence in A Scandal in Belgravia. As in the original, Holmes disguises himself as a clergyman and employs injuries sustained in a staged fight to gain entry to Adler’s house. However she sees through his disguise, only to reveal her hiding place when Watson raises a false alarm. (Sherlock’s explanation about a mother’s first instinct being to rush to protect their children is repeated almost verbatim here.) At the end of the tale, Holmes asks to keep Adler’s photograph, just as he ensures he keeps her phone in this version to remember her by.

More than that, the episode also references a number of other Holmes tales and icons. The procession of apparently trivial cases at the beginning of the episode include references to the ‘geek interpreter’ and a speckled blonde, a clear tip of the hat to The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter and The Adventure of the Speckled Band respectively. Holmes’ warning cry of “Vatican cameos!” to Watson as he opens Adler’s booby-trapped safe references both an unwritten adventure which is mentioned in The Hound of the Baskervilles and a subsequent computer game from the 1980s. And, of course, we see Holmes donning his famed deerstalker as he attempts to dodge the paparazzi early in the episode.

Another great episode

Viewed as a standalone story, A Scandal in Belgravia works brilliantly. The plot races along, held together by both big set-piece examples of Holmes’ deductive powers and smaller, more detailed moments, such as his casual and cruel dissection of lab technician Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) bringing a gift and dressing up for the man she loves, only to flip over the present tag and discover it is addressed to him. Indeed, as in the previous set of three stories, humour is used liberally throughout, with the running joke of people questioning whether Holmes and Watson are gay being woven in on several occasions, and an early strand on how Watson’s blog about their adventures has turned Holmes into something of an internet phenomenon.

Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk

The cast is also a key strength. Cumberbatch nails Holmes’ aloofness and arrogance while keeping the character sympathetic and hinting at the human underneath, and his on-screen chemistry with Freeman is also spot on. Despite limited screen time Rupert Graves conveys a modern version of Inspector Lestrade wonderfully, an honest copper who is as much in awe of Holmes’ abilities as he is maddened by his abrasiveness. And it was also great to see Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) finally given some meaningful action and a chance to show her own resourcefulness.

But it is Lara Pulver‘s turn as Irene Adler which really makes this episode fly. Simultaneously alluring, mysterious and fiercely intelligent, she is the only character other than Moriarty who is able to stand toe-to-toe with Holmes as an equal. Playful and yet taut and in complete control, every scene between Pulver and Cumberbatch crackles with energy. In her own words, brainy may well be the new sexy, but the credibility of the story is wholly dependent on Adler being both convincingly, and Pulver pulls this off with a degree of class.

It’s not quite the perfect episode. Both the cliffhanger resolution and the reveal of Sherlock’s dashing rescue of Irene felt a little perfunctory, and the CSI-by-webcam joke outstayed its welcome somewhat. However, essentially all the 85 minutes in between was sheer brilliance without the need for gratuitous violence, sex or special effects. And I will never be able to hear that Bee Gees song again without bursting into a fit of the giggles. Bring on the Baskervilles!

Rating – 9/10

Links: Season 1 reviewOfficial BBC Sherlock home pageSherlock Holmes’ website – The Science of Deduction (BBC)Dr John Watson’s personal blog (BBC)The Sherlock Holmes Museum