Thursday, January 05, 2012

A man of wealth and taste

It’s hard to play a villain at the best of times; the balance between charismatic and reprehensible (or downright terrifying) is difficult to maintain. I was indifferent to Inglorious Basterds but can’t quite forget Christopher Waltz’s friendly, occasionally charming and utterly evil Nazi Col. Landa. Delve into the classics and find Anthony Hopkins and Alan Rickman playing Hannibal Lecter and Hans Gruber with such delicious zeal that most audiences became rather attached to them and secretly hoped they’d get away with their villainy.

Less so for Lecter than Gruber, to be fair. One can imagine Hans Gruber being the best financial advisor in the world if he was on your side (he’d simply shoot any trader who didn’t generate the returns he wanted), while Lecter would be a charming travel companion with his affinity for polite behaviour and penchant for eating the rude waiters or tour guides you encountered. But Gruber would eventually feel overworked and convince you that your money was also his money (most likely at gunpoint), and Lecter would find himself peckish some afternoon and crave a snack (most likely you, if you weren’t fast enough). 

Not all villains come across as party animals; evil plays frighteningly well when banal if you’ve got the right actor. Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men blends into the background (bad haircut notwithstanding) , waiting to be not-noticed enough to seize his prey unnoticed. Bounce back fifteen years or so to see Kevin Spacey’s John Doe in the largely overrated Se7en as a rather plain penalty-and-repentence type with an unfortunate gift for creative set decoration and loud voice when he wants it (his “DetecTIVE!” line carries more weight than you’d like it to).

Good villians of any stripe are hard to come by, so the recent BBC series Sherlock has restarted the game from a new angle without sending the Baker Street Irregulars into a boycotting tizzy. A modernized chestnut remains a chestnut, but that doesn't mean the series is unnecessary. The update to contemporary London is done with a little more wit than expected and the characters are riffed-upon in a way that doesn’t entirely betray their originals. People forget that Dr. Watson had been a solider (in Afganistan, yet) and Martin Freeman brings a weary PTSD aura to Watson that isn’t without a streak of humour.

Sherlock himself (Benedict Cumberbatch) has less room to riff since Holmes’ tics and fetishes are legendary, but manages a few twists by playing up Holmes’ petulance with shades of an overindulged Eton bad boy with the emotional maturity of a 12 year-old (his impression of ‘girls’ appears to be ‘icky’) who bores easily and hates being the smartest one in the room (except that he doesn’t). When a Scotland Yard flunky calls him a psychopath, he fires back with “I’m not a psychopath, I'm a a high-functioning sociopath” with more than a hint of pride.

It’s all frighteningly slick in the hands of producer Steven Moffatt, one of the forces behind the 2005 Doctor Who reboot. This sheen eventually works against it because it all goes down too easily. I was amused and impressed with the first two 90-minute episodes and forgot most of them 48hrs later. I was writing it all off as shiny if unoriginal, until Moriarty’s late arrival in the third episode when the chestnut sprouted something new.

Moriarty (an askew Andrew Scott) is the ‘Consulting Criminal’ to Holmes’ ‘Consulting Detective’ (since ‘Private Eye’ and ‘Thug for Hire’ attract the wrong sort of clients) in a Westwood suit with a flair for the dramatic and an accent of indeterminate origin. He also sports the psychological stability of a tower of Jello and doesn't chew the scenery so much as lick it top to bottom with one eyebrow cocked at a seductive angle to flirt with death, rather than any corporeal being. It's all an eyelash away from camp (he might not be a friend of Dorothy, although you're pretty sure they've brunched together on a few occasions), but his flat cartoony line-readings are genuinely frightening when lifting into flights of fancy before dropping to frosty, matter-of-fact malice. Usually in the same sentence.

He's five steps ahead of the game or on an entirely different pitch altogether. And this is just the insanity we can see. Anything under the surface is up for grabs. It all suggests great confidence. Or utter obliviousness. Or that it all might be an act, which might be the scariest option; if it’s all an act, what’s at the core? Is he milimetres away from drooling, or is he a mastermind who’s laying it on thick while still in control? Or simply thinking he’s in control?

Doyle’s Moriarty was impossibly omnipotent and therefore opaque (some people suggest that his reputation was always supposed to be a figment of Holmes’ paranoia, other people have a life) while Moffat’s Moriarty is removed enough from reality that it doesn’t matter if he’s the godfather of the underworld. He’s convinced that he is, and the intention might prove enough for the deed. The results of most villainy are fairly banal anyhow, it's money, power or sex 9 times from 10, all of which get boring in excess. You’ve got to be on the psycho side if you’re trying to acquire them simply to pass the time.

Virtue runs on the same rules; Holmes might support the police as a lark but he’s intensely fond of his access to their equipment and his monograph on the makeup of different types of tobacco ashes. It's not a hobby for somebody socialized or particularly sane. I'd go on a pub crawl with Moriarty any time, even though it might kill me; at least I'd have a hell of a time on the way out. As for Holmes, there's nobody I'd recommend more highly to solve your mystery and save the day. But would you willingly invite him to tea? Never. Moriarty's a lot more fun. Come for the hero. Stay for the villain.

January, 2012


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