Last year, I had a blast writing my analysis of the techniques used in the morgue scene in A Scandal in Belgravia, and was very pleased at the lovely response it got. I’ve had it in my mind to do another one, but couldn’t think of a scene that struck me as that one did, until recently. While corresponding with acafanmom, she asked if I had any thoughts on the Battersea Power Station scene in the same episode. Specifically, “Any idea why John keeps getting boxed in in profile?? What we came up with (it seems to happen every time the conversation takes another direction that leaves him in the dark) wasn’t quite satisfying.”
I said I’d take another look at the scene and give my thoughts, which turned out to be more extensive than I thought. So lo and behold, I came up with this.
[Scene begins at the 52:00 mark on the BBC/DVD edit. Screencaps from this site.]
The first thing that struck me about this scene is the use of space. Not only because John and Irene are about as far apart as they can get while still remaining within hearing distance of each other, but because of the way each are placed within the frame.
If you’re not familiar with the compositional Rule of Thirds: It holds that if you divide an image into thirds (both vertically and horizontally, making nine squares) the most important elements should fall along the lines and/or the intersections. I was curious as to how the shots of John and Irene stacked up to that rule, and the answer is, “Quite well.” (The following two caps were brightened for clarity, the rest of the caps included are unedited.)
The top of John’s head is aligned with the first horizontal line, and his ear and the side of his head are perfectly aligned with the first vertical line. Most of his body falls along the first vertical line, and the lower left intersection falls right on his body, in the armpit area. His face is framed in the left center square.
The top of her head aligns with the first horizontal line, and the side of her head and hair are perfectly aligned with the second vertical line. Most of her body falls along the second vertical line, with the lower right intersection falling in her armpit area. Her face is framed in the right center square. Both are off-center because placing actors just to the side of center frame (along what Roger Ebert calls the “strong axis”) is considered more aesthetically pleasing. Yet she and John are framed as exact mirror images of each other - symbolism, ahoy! - but with John on the left and Irene on the right. Now what does that mean?
Traditionally, the left side of the frame is considered more positive, with the right more negative. The common theory is that it’s because Westerners read from left to right, but cinema in cultures where they read the opposite, from right to left (like Asia), still generally use that technique. Action also generally goes from left to right because, for some reason, the human eye likes to drift in that direction. (In exhibit design, which I was trained in, there was the same right to left rule, and I also imagine it pops up in other visual arts fields.) Filmmakers will sometimes then use right to left action when they want the viewer to have a vaguely unsettled feeling, or want to imply going into the reverse, or into the past, etc.
Despite the series being called Sherlock, I would argue that John is actually our protagonist. We start the series from his perspective and (so far) we follow him in the wake of Sherlock’s “death,” rather than Sherlock himself. It’s a common thing heard about the Conan Doyle canon, too, that the stories Sherlock writes himself are weaker than the ones written by Watson. Mark Gatiss has also mentioned about how John is our window into Sherlock’s world. So is John on the left side because he’s our hero, and Irene is on the right because, specifically in this scene, she’s the pseudo-villain? She’s the one who faked her death, after all, and is causing upheaval and pain.
But hang on a minute, because McGuigan plays with our expectations in this scene (as he does in the rest of the episode). Notice that Irene is the one getting bathed in the light from the windows, usually a heroic touch:
Yet there’s still something vaguely off about her in the shot, because while she’s getting bathed in natural light she’s also dressed in all black. The darkness also contrasts with the style of whatever that thing is she’s wearing (tunic? coat?) because it looks almost like a religious frock. Normally that would signal virtue and innocence, were it another color, but the uninterrupted black is vaguely sinister. Earlier in the episode, we saw her in a white dress, so again they’re playing with our expectations of her throughout this episode. Irene is darkness/light, black/white, severe/casual, hero/villain.
John, on the other hand, is lit with cool, vaguely bluish tones. From the first time I saw this episode that stood out to me, because he’s quite angry during most of the scene, yet the lighting is calming. Personally, that contrast makes me vaguely nervous, which I suspect is deliberate. (An aside about Martin Freeman’s acting here. He’s astonishing. He makes choices that are unpredictable yet end up making total sense and adding amazing emotional realism and depth to his character.)
The primary thing McGuigan does in this scene to keep us off-kilter, however, is to have Martin Freeman (John) and Lara Pulver (Irene) look directly into the camera almost the entire time.
This is a technique used sparingly by directors because, again, it’s something that’s vaguely unsettling to us as viewers. Either it breaks the fourth wall (where the character addresses us as viewers, acknowledging they’re in a film) or it forces us into the point of view of the person to whom the character is speaking. That automatically raises the emotional stakes for us.
Think about how differently you feel, for example, when watching John yell in the lab near the end of The Reichenbach Fall vs. here. In the former, he’s yelling at Sherlock. We see that, we know that. Our emotions are dependent on how we feel about how John and Sherlock are reacting to each other. But in this scene, when John yells at Irene it’s directly into the camera. We’re the surrogates for Irene, so it’s like he’s yelling directly at us.
It may seem silly, but it’s actually a visceral reaction filmmakers depend on. We feel differently when someone is appearing to look us directly in the face and is yelling at us, or talking at us, or laughing at us, etc. vs. when we see it being done to another person. Jonathan Demme used it effectively in Silence of the Lambs, and chances are when you think of Hannibal Lecter you picture his face, staring at you. It’s one of the reasons why the character was so scary. On the other hand, Tom Hooper over-indulged this technique in Les Miserables, resulting in many negative reactions, because viewers don’t like direction that forces them into a continuous emotional state without respite.
What’s interesting about McGuigan’s use of it here, however, is that he puts us in both Irene and John’s shoes. Irene talks to us. She looks at us directly. She’s not hiding. We’re the target of John’s anger, but yet we’re also put in his shoes, forced to try and consider whether Irene is being genuine and telling the truth. The emotion of the scene is heightened because we’re being volleyed back and forth, forced by the direction to see both characters’ perspectives, rather than just take a side.
The “boxing in” that acafanmom referred to concerns the shots where we see John in profile, framed by a window. The first time it happens is halfway through the line, “I’d say he was heartbroken, but it’s Sherlock. He does all that anyway.” It’s the moment John first registers shock at seeing Irene alive.
We see him framed by the window, in profile, again on the following lines:
"You were dead on a slab."
"So is this. Tell him you’re alive."
"He’s Mr. Punchline. He’ll outlive God trying to have the last word."
And, finally, his little sigh and look of realization/frustration after Irene says, “Well, I am [gay], and look at us both.”
The pattern I detect with those boxed in window shots of John is that we’re seeing him framed and isolated beginning with a moment of realization, a demand, another demand, a vaguely sentimental statement about Sherlock, and finally ending with another moment of realization.
Irene is only boxed in on two lines:
"It’s for his own safety."
And finally, the moment she hears Sherlock’s text notice sound and realizes he followed John to the station, and stops John going after Sherlock with, “I don’t think so, do you?”
So she’s framed during a defensive statement, another defensive statement, and finally ends on a moment of realization. Those are the points during the scene where we don’t see Irene or John’s face directly. They’re not addressing the camera, i.e. us, and we can’t judge the emotion on their faces honestly. In contrast to the full front shots which expose the characters’ vulnerability, those profile shots restore literal and emotional distance.
To summarize, the overarching theme I get from this scene is contrast.
- John on the left vs. Irene on the right.
- John’s anger vs. the the cool, bluish tones lighting him.
- Irene’s black wardrobe and severe hairstyle vs. the natural light from the windows.
- The intimate, emotional shots facing the camera directly vs. the distant, removed profile shots framed by windows.
- John’s outward anger and expressed passion vs. Irene’s cool and composed delivery.
- John’s demands and accusations vs. Irene’s stubbornness and defensiveness.
- John’s action (pacing, trying to walk out, trying to go after Sherlock) vs. Irene’s stillness.
The camera cuts continually between the two and (excepting the one shot I used as my header for this post) they’re not in the same frame together. They’re always at a distance, in adversarial positions, and yet the camera treats them essentially as equal adversaries. The contrasting techniques underscore the episode’s overall theme of emotion vs. logic. But, at the same time, in this scene the camera is also presenting us with Irene and John as mirror images - competitors who can’t help but reflect each other.