Dutch Angles are a type of camera effect used in filming, where the camera is tilted at an angle. You’ve probably seen it before, especially if you’ve watched older movies where the effect was used a lot more than it is today. And in BBC Sherlock it is used sparingly, to effectively suggest disorientation, confusion, unease, and loss.
Here this use of the Dutch Angle makes a lot of sense. Sherlock has just been shot, he’s in the process of dying, he’s slowly falling apart. This mood is conveyed effectively by tilting the screen and focusing in on Sherlock going into shock.
We’ve also got the whole bit with Redbeard filmed this way. This is followed by Dutch Angles during the padded cell with Moriarty, before the camera finally rights itself again upon Sherlock gaining consciousness. HLV contains more of these types of angles than any other episode. It’s mean to represent in visual terms the consequences of wrong choices that have led to this painful mess.
Another scene where Dutch Angles are used is, rather unsurprisingly, the Fall.
It starts once Sherlock falls. Once John hits the pavement, the camera continues to stay titled while focusing on John.
Again, for the context of this scene, the use of Dutch Angles makes a lot of sense, and works well paired with the shift between in-focus and out-of-focus. John’s view of the world has literally been thrown off balance, and while the rest of his grieving scenes are more stable, similar colour schemes bleed out of the Fall and onto the rest of his life.
Given some examples of where the Dutch Angle has been used, I now want to focus on a moment that drew my interest to this technique:
This shot doesn’t make sense. It is during Sherlock’s Bond Air deduction, but for a brief moment the camera looks at John and tilts, dramatically so. Based on all the other uses for this angle we have seen, a Dutch Angle shows a character who is at in that moment under great stress, loss, and/or confusion. No body is dying in this scene, by all accounts Sherlock is the only one who should be mildly disoriented, not John. So there must be a reason for this usage that goes beyond John being a bit perplexed at Sherlock’s deductions.
Ah, yes, that’s makes more sense.
Sherlock is trying to deduce the numbers and Irene is trying to flirt with Sherlock to get what she wants. Sherlock generally looks annoyed at her kissing him but John actually slams his mug down. You can see a very brief blink-and-you-miss-it shot of his face. He looks hurt. Angry. His jaw is set and brows furrowed.
This seemingly simply scene of good old bumbling John being confused as usual looks a whole lot different if you consider what John has been through by this point. This isn’t like earlier when they first confront Irene and he is generally annoyed but otherwise neutral towards her. Now he has seen her drug and beat Sherlock without consent, he’s seen Sherlock affected by her supposed death, then watch her come back to life and learn that she flirted at him via text. And then he realises Sherlock overheard him say that he wasn’t gay, but that issue was not resolved.
To say John is confused and annoyed by this point is an understatement. He’s worried for Sherlock, angry at Irene, and from his viewpoint it looks like against all better judgment those two are ready to have sex right there in front of him as if all those wounds were never dealt.
As if he isn’t there and doesn’t matter.
That’s why we get this seemingly incongruous Dutch Angle, one that conveys extreme confusion and loss. The cinematography in this show isn’t taken lightly, we’ve seen all kinds of creative uses for crazy shots. It then makes sense that we are meant to realise John’s point of view in this scene. We shouldn’t be rooting for Sherlock to be with Irene or any other female for that matter, because John, our narrator of this story, sees this and the story world loses balance. It is equated with Sherlock throwing himself off a building or Sherlock getting shot and having to raise himself from the dead, because this is one of several moments where we are supposed to share John’s anger and confusion.
Thankfully, of course, the camera does right itself again, and it is eventually revealed Irene only flirted with Sherlock to get what she wanted, and that he found her annoying and pathetic. John doesn’t know this, but we do as the audience. All is right again, until of course Moriarty ruins everything and Sherlock jumps off a building and then John goes off and marries an assassin. This culminates in the finale episode featuring a ton of Dutch Angles screaming at us that none of this is right, that Mary is the cause of a lot of these problems, and that the world won’t be right until Sherlock and John are actually back together again.
You have to admit, the filmmakers know what they’re doing and they’re great at it. They’ve also instilled in me a lifelong love for the awkward, rare Dutch Angle.