Sherlock Holmes Review
From the Papers of Dr John H Watson
I see from my notes that it was in the May of 2010, a peculiarly cold month for the time of year as I recall, that Holmes and I embarked on the strange affair of The Adventure of the Blue Box. I had not seen my old friend for a while, having been busy myself with The Mystery of the Unnecessary Remake and the terrifying case of The Giant Monster of Chloris, but one evening I happened to find myself passing through Baker Street and decided to look my old friend up. The world had not seen much of the Great Detective in recent years, at least not in the major leagues, and I was eager to discover how he would fare in the modern world of reinvented secret agents and men who dressed up in brightly coloured outfits and flew round the skies to fight crime. After all, if they can be rediscovered, why not he who could lay claim to being their common ancestor?
Since we last met I had heard many wild rumours regarding how Holmes had been changed beyond all recognition, so I was both surprised and comforted, on entering my old quarters, to find him in a reassuringly familiar guise. Outside the great metropolis was looking as beautiful as I can ever remember seeing it, albeit in a mildly chocolate-box, oddly artificial light, dirty in a paradoxically sanitised fashion, but the rooms of 221B were much as I always think of them, a mess of strewn papers, bubbling test tubes, overflowing cabinets of notes and a roaring fire. In the midst of this melange of detritus sat my old friend, a little older than when we last met and employing a mild transatlantic twang I hadn’t noted before but otherwise largely unchanged. On seeing me, he sprang from his chair holding a small blue box which he had been studying as I came in. “Ah Watson,” he said, “Perfect timing, this concerns you. What do you make of it?”
I took the box from him to examine. It really was the most curious object: thin, made from some kind of translucent material and which, when opened by a kind of hinge mechanism, was found to contain two round discs, perhaps four inches across and which seemed to serve no discernable purpose. But that was not the oddest thing, for on both the cover and each of the discs, there was emblazoned, in a bold and forthright typeface the like of which I am quite sure the Strand Magazine has never employed, the legend “Sherlock Holmes,” below which were the faces of two interlopers both quite unknown to myself. I looked up at my friend’s amused expression in astonishment. “Extraordinary, Holmes! What is it?”
“A record, Watson.” Holmes nodded at it again. “A record of a moving picture. About us.”
"Oh really, Holmes." I threw the box onto the table. "Why are you wasting your time with such frivolous nonsense?" I had never liked the nickelodeons, at least not since they had made Holmes appear such a fool in Sherlock Holmes Baffled.
“No, no, my dear fellow.” Holmes passed the box back to me. “It is actually an instructive ... case.” He winced at the weak pun. “What do you make of it?”
Reluctantly I turned it over in my hands. “Nothing very much, I’m afraid,” I said.
“Watson, you look but you do not see.” Holmes snatched the box back from me. “Observe how I am portrayed. There’s no pipe, no deerstalker, my hair is more unruly than usual. From these differences we can infer this is a production which will not be beholden to tradition. Your counterpart, on the other hand, is the spitting image of Sidney Paget’s original illustrations, so the film is not at all unknowledgeable about its subject matter.”
“And it’s not as though my account have ever been recorded your wearing a deerstalker,” I pointed out.
“Quite so. See, too, how while we are at the forefront of the image, the rest of the cast, and indeed all images pertaining to the story, are far in the background, greyed out, almost incidental, window dressing rather than anything more important.” Holmes broke into a smile. “This is a story primarily focused on you and I."
I picked the box up again and looked closely at it. “Which case did they use?”
“You remember the Blackwood affair?”
“I should say,” I said. “Although I confess that many of the particulars now escape me.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Holmes. “Not only because it was such a whirr of noise and action that most details were rather lost in the fray, but you were on the verge of getting married at the time and were – somewhat distracted.”
“Oh yes.” I wagged my finger. “You were not happy. You made life very difficult for myself and Mary.”
Holmes demurred. “I was not acting particularly like myself at the time.” He considered. “Blackwood got to me. He was, you remember, the ex-leader of the Four Orders, a Masonic Cult whose members included the Home Secretary and American Ambassador. Blackwood claimed to have supernatural powers, and when we first caught up with him he was on the verge of ritually sacrificing the last of a number of young victims.”
I shuddered. “I remember. It really did seem like the fellow was from Hell itself.” (Editor's note - spoilers for the film's end now follow, and continue until the next image.)
Holmes nodded. “And that is why the case is used here. The whole mystery revolves around whether Blackwood is in league with the devil or whether his machinations have a more earthly explanation. He is seen hung but days later resurrects from his tomb. He induces spontaneous combustion and sudden drowning in his adversaries. He enters and leaves buildings in a vampiric manner, while a crow flies by as though he is somehow metamorphosing himself. All very singular, but all utterly circumstantial. Of course, in the end there are rational explanations for everything. But Watson – “ and here Holmes looked pained, as a connoisseur might on picking up a likely-looking wine only to find it was made in Yorkshire, “these are all mere details. Window dressing. Hundreds and thousands rather than the sweet itself. Think back. Did you care whether he faked his own death or had really come back to life?”
I considered. Now Holmes mentioned it, it didn’t seem really to matter one way or the other. Had he proved to have miraculous powers, I’m not sure I would have minded one little bit. “Are you saying as a villain he wasn’t very strong?”
“No, he is Strong. Mark Strong, that’s the actor’s name. And he is good in the role, gothically brooding and ominous. Sadly, he’s also a little... generic. Nothing he does ultimately distinguishes from other similar villains the past. He’s entirely adequate but nothing more.”
(Editor's note - end of spoilers) Holmes shrugged. “He looked like he was having fun. More so than the fellow playing Lestrade.” He chuckled. “It’s a thankless role at the best of times, but Eddie Marsan is singularly unnoteworthy, unlike young Rachel McAdams who makes the most of what is not a very rewarding role.”
I harrumphed. “I suppose she plays Mary?”
“No Watson.” There was a long pause. “She plays... the woman.”
I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing. “Irene Adler? I see no reason for her presence.”
Holmes had the grace to look chagrined. “For modern entertainments of this sort the presence of a...” he hesitated... “strong-willed heroine for the hero to play off against is mandatory.” He sighed. “It is an odd fact to note that while the movie has as its main theme my jealousy of your impending marriage, and - " he sighed - "the tug-of-war between the future Mrs Watson and myself for your time and attention, there is remarkably little attempt to tie this in with Adler’s presence in the film. Do I try and use her to make you jealous? No. Do I attempt to experiment with having a similar kind of arrangement with her as you do with the future Mrs Watson? No. Does she, in fact, do anything other than prod me in the right direction in an entirely plot-driven manner, pretty the place up and lay the groundwork for what will undoubtedly be a return encounter at some future time?” He stopped pacing and said triumphantly, “Yes!”
I considered. “Bit harsh, old chap,” I said, looking closely at her image on the box. “She does look good in that outfit.”
Holmes tutted. “Always the same old Watson,” he said not without affection. “But no. The plot is adequate as are the other protagonists, but I would wager to suggest that anyone viewing it won’t remember – or even wish to remember – much about the details past the curtain call. That is not,” he added, “the main strength of the piece.”
“A shame,” I said. “Your best cases are generally those which are in and of themselves as interesting as their investigators.”
Holmes nodded. “Watson, I’ve chastised you before on your love of sensation and incident over those small and trivial cases which nevertheless best illustrate the fine science of deduction. However,” he added, “you have a point. Blackwood is no Roylott, Milverton, and he certainly doesn't come close to matching the late-lamented Professor Moriarty.” For a few moments he sucked on his pipe in quiet contemplation, while I tried to work out how one would place the discs on the gramophone player. “However,” he added, “perhaps future productions will rectify that - indeed, Moriarty himself makes a series of shadowy if pointless appearances throughout. No, this film’s main raison d’etre is to establish the two leads and the focus on their relationship is quite the strongest thing. You, especially, are well done. This fellow Law does an amusingly accurate impression.”
I stared at his face on the cover. “I don’t,” I remarked stiffly, “see much similarity.”
“Nonsense, my dear fellow,” my companion retorted. “Although there is a lot of unthinking nonsense written regarding past versions of you – The Case of the Bumbling Fool was, after all, seventy years ago now – yet there is truth in the fact that still generally you are represented as being rather older than the recently-invalided army surgeon of your accounts. Not so Law. His Watson is young, romantic, impetuous, active, equal parts exasperated and adoring of me – “
“No, my dear fellow, I’m afraid it’s true.” He looked amused. “And if some liberties are taken with some of the particulars, the essential facts are, I would dare to say, as well represented as they have ever been.”
“And Downey Jr?”
“Ahh yes.” His face clouded. “There we must be more... qualified in our praise. There is no doubt that this... American... is charismatic and amusing and gives a good account of himself – indeed, I would dare say that those without the same acute faculties of deduction and reason as myself might not even suspect his Colonial origins - but does he come close to being a true reflection of me? I think not. He’s far too.... emotional.”
“Quite so.” Now Holmes adopted a steely-eyed glint in his eyes. “I am under no illusions, Watson. It has long been remarked that one of my defining primary characteristics is my complete repression of all normal human reaction. Logic, not instinct, is my muse and anything that interferes with the former I discard. Some would call it borderline sociopathic, but I don’t understand their feelings. The emotion is there, but tight-lipped, concealed, suppressed. This fellow,” waving the box about, “doesn’t so much modify this as ignore it completely. His Holmes is jealous of your marriage, loose-limbed, a swaggerer, he wields his arrogance as a weapon in the way a ruffian brandishes a club. When I am bored or frustrated, when emotion or lack of logic endangers my analytical powers I have been known to pull out the hypodermic and retire to bed. When he is feeling put out, he goes down to the nearest bear pit and works out his aggression on some unfortunate pugilist.” By this point Holmes had got himself into quite a temper, and banged his fist down hard on the table. “It is a fundamental - fundamental Watson – misunderstanding of my character.”
“You’re, erm, getting a bit worked up there, old chap,” I said. “Would you like your...” I coughed diplomatically. But the moment was passed, and Holmes was himself again. He smiled. “No thank you Watson. But that is the difference between the real me and this personification. He would never need a seven percent solution of anything...” He sat back in his chair, hands behind his head, and stared at the wall. “It worries me, Watson, this... version. There is good work in the portrayal – I admit, the exploration of our friendship is intriguing, and I can see if not agree with the idea to explore my possessiveness in regards to your good self, but...” he nodded once, then twice. “The way it is handled... suggests the first reason for using our name was simply to create a period.... ‘buddy movie.’”
I raised my eyes. “’Buddy movie?’ Sounds like more American rot!”
“Not necessarily, although I admit primarily so.” He looked serious. “If one was to make a clinical diagnosis, all the symptoms are there. The dysfunctional relationship. The flippancy. The latent sexual component. The restless movement of the narrative from one set piece to the next, none of which in truth have a great deal of connection with the mystery at hand. It’s all very... formulaic.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You have to admit our adventures are never without incident.”
“No...” Holmes was still pensive. “But usually there is more connection between the action and the mystery. Here there is none. It makes it look as though the ideas for the big moments came first and the mystery added later. The threads binding the whole tapestry together are not strong.” He smiled. “It’s very Roger Moore Bond, even down to the Jaws character.”
“Roger Moore... Bond?”
He shook his head. “The reference is obscure. He played me once.” He winced. “If anything was liable to make me descend to the bear pit for a spot of aggression therapy, it’s that. Still...” Suddenly he got that mischievous glint in his eye. “There’s no denying that for anyone but the purist... it’s a lot of fun.”
I looked doubtful.
“No no, Watson, I must insist. The two hours fly by. It’s fast and funny, and London has never looked better. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography brings to life the location, while Hans Zimmer’s musical score, while not one of his best and sadly lacking in violin solos, functions well. This Ritchie, while not having the true artist’s eye for shot composition – he’s no Vernet – brings an exuberance and zest to proceedings that, as a piece of entertainment, is hard to fault. One might quibble, but sequences such as the ship yard fight, the opening ritual sacrifice, even the moment I adopt a quick disguise to catch up with Irene...” He shrugged. “Readers of The Strand would have been amused at the very least. That said...”
“Although, Watson, I should be careful to be too scathing given my memorable journey to the Reichenbach Falls, the final half hour is by far the least convincing. You remember my climactic fight with Blackwood at the top of the half-built Tower Bridge?”
“I remember it was a hell of a climb.”
“In this version it feels a bit too formulaic, like the backdrop a tad too artificial, calculated. Together with Blackwood’s ultimate aim to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and our successful attempts to stop him, it’s all far more Buchan, Bond or Bourne than Doyle.”
“I’m afraid I’m not following you.”
“Watson if you spent more time at the local fleapits you would. But ultimately,” he stopped for a moment to reflect, “that really doesn’t matter.”
“Oh come now.” This was a bit much, even for Holmes. “Surely if this whole endeavour is nothing more than an exploitation of the name it is not to be welcomed?”
“Is it?” Holmes walked across to his desk and unlocked a small drawer to produce a crumpled bit of paper. “Whenever I find myself thinking too deeply about... my career, and those who would seek to profit by it, and whenever I find myself getting indignant or nitpicking, I just look at this.”
He handed the paper to me. On it was written “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.” I looked up. “Who wrote that?”
“A Scottish writer, named Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.”
“Never heard of him.”
“Me neither. But he’d heard about us, and he wrote that note to the actor William Gillette when the latter was preparing a stage play based on our adventures.”
“The infernal cheek!”
“Not at all, my dear fellow. Doyle was quite right. Very talented fellow, but under no illusions – at least” he hesitated – “under no illusions where his work for the Strand Magazine was concerned. His great talent was in writing superbly entertaining, memorable pulp fiction. It was only due to the happy accident that he created the world’s greatest detective that anyone has ever tried to make his work out to be anything more.” Holmes leant back and waved the strange blue box at me. “All our complaints about it are as nothing in the end,” he said, “when the whole is as entertaining as this. He might have blanched over some of the details, and frankly the meat of the story doesn’t come close to his best, but I deduce that Sir Arthur, whoever he was, would have thoroughly approved of this as epitomising what his adventure stories were meant to be about. So who are we to argue?”
I paused. “Perhaps you’re right, Holmes,” I allowed. “There’s just one thing I don’t understand.”
“What’s that, my dear fellow?”
I picked up one of the discs. “How on earth do you play them?”
Soon after that I took my leave of my old friend, and found myself out on the cold street of Baker Street as the evening twilight was slowly descending over the city. As I walked down the road, and turned to go, I looked back. Out of the upstairs window, I saw my friend looking down at me. He caught my eye, and I nodded to him once before turning back and, rounding the corner, losing sight of him. It had been a funny evening, a little weak in parts but overall extremely enjoyable. Somehow I knew that it wouldn’t be too long before I would be seeing my old friend again, and to my surprise I discovered that I was greatly looking forward to it.
Sherlock Holmes is released on both a bare-bones one-disc DVD edition and the Blu-ray under review here, which comes packaged with the SD disc as well in case any hi-def fans wish to slum it. You can’t tell from the cover art here but the outer case has a hologram, so that as you turn it Watson appears to regenerate into Holmes and then back again (you can see the effect, sort of, courtesy of Play.com here.) Inside is a normal case with the artwork from the main cinema poster. In addition to the two discs, the DVD also comes with a Digital Copy so that there is no excuse for you to be caught without a copy of the film about your person ever again.
The Main Menu is, as with many these days, a single strip running along the bottom which allows interaction while the movie itself is playing. The palate of the Video in mildly saturated, intentionally so presumably to replicate the feeling of the pages of the Strand magazine, and is packed with detail, the individual faces in crowds standing out and the repressed colour scheme standing out as sharply as it can. It looks beautiful, while the Audio mix is similarly impressive - I'm pleased to be able to report that coaches rattle along cobbled streets with the clatter you could hope for, while environments both in and outside are suitably atmospheric and, especially in the Houses of Parliament and the opening sequence, aptly cavernous. The one moment where the atmosphere is slightly let down is in the final showdown on the Tower of London - if ever there was a scene which needed aural help to make audiences forget we're on a soundstage it was this but the wind and river effects aren't quite enough to carry off the illusion.
The major extra is the ”Maximum Movie Mode” which is basically an enhanced Commentary. Watching the film with this feature turned on, you are treated to a pretty constant stream of Picture-in-picture commentaries from various crew members, little Holmes factoids on a timeline which are pretty well researched, the option to access Storyboards of various action sequences or Art Galleries (Press Enter now!) and, every so often, Guy Ritchie stepping in front of the action and talking to us, rather in the manner of a university lecturer, about some particular facet of the film. It all works very well indeed and makes for an enjoyable and informative companion to the film, far more so than had there just been the usual audio-only commentary.
In addition to the elements listed in the last paragraph, at various points the MMM also offers the option to watch one of the Focus Points. These are your typical DVD featurettes, and can also be watched from a separate menu should you not wish to plough through the movie to get to them, either individually or all together. If I list their names you’ll get the idea what they’re about - Drawbridges & Dollies: Designing a Late Victorian London; Not a Deerstalker Cap in Sight; Ba-ritsu: A Tutorial; Elementary English: Perfecting Sherlock’s Accent; The One That Got Away (about Irene Adler); Powers of Observation and Deduction; The Sherlockians; Future Past. The most fun of these is actually The Sherlockians which drops in on a gathering of fans who are all happily bonkers about Sherlock. “I think if Conan Doyle was alive today he’d be bewildered by what we do,” confesses one cheerfully. These featurettes are your standard Making Of movie fare, with a whiff of EPK about them, but of a perfectly reasonable standard, their total running time coming to 31:17. Finally there’s Sherlock Holmes: Reinvented (14:06) which is effectively more of the same, albeit in a more E4-friendly manner, as well as the option to hook up with Warner Bros BD-Live.
For a brief interview with Producer Susan Downey, Click Here.
After a hundred plus years and countless incarnations, one can be fairly relaxed about a Sherlock Holmes film that doesn't follow the holy Canon exactly. It's an exaggeration on the behalf of the filmmakers to emphasise Holmes's pugilism quite so much, a disingenuous attempt to explain why Ritchie's style is used with this material, but it works fine and the two leads make one hope that further adventures aren't too long in coming - just try and make the actual mystery a bit better next time. The disc is nicely done and perfectly adequate, although there's not quite enough material included to make one fail to deduce that there might be a second version along come the next appearance of the dynamic duo in the cinema. Just one question though - given that this film essentially does Reichenbach on the bridge this time, how will Ritchie show Moriarty and Holmes's showdown and make it sufficiently different?
8 out of 10
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