Sherlock Holmes Review
The IMDB lists no fewer than 223 productions that feature the character Sherlock Holmes, and in the case of TV the figure accounts for whole series rather than individual episodes, so the true total is actually far higher. In the face of such a huge and stuffy screen history, Guy Ritchie and his producers naturally wanted something completely different, a reinvention for the age of fast action, CGI and coolness. So who better to put the pipe between his teeth than a highly acclaimed actor of just the right age who has already mined box office gold by playing a genial plutocrat superhero-type whose main wellspring of power is his massive intellect? Robert Downey Jr. is indeed excellently cast and the journey from Iron Man to Sherlock Holmes involves but few short steps and a quick change of accent.
This Holmes has floppy hair and designer stubble; he possesses almost Da Vinci-like inspiration as an inventor and a chemist; he has a six-pack and he’s no stranger to a bit of bare-knuckle fisticuffs; and, of course, he’s a master of disguise—at one point doing a pretty fair imitation of Harpo Marx. Holmes’ legendary substance abuse is only hinted at here, and even his gargantuan tobacco intake has been moderated, doubtless to set a good example to formative minds. Similarly the bumbling, adipose figure of Dr. Watson required overhauling, so enter the lean and handsome Jude Law, who looks suave with a moustache and sideboards, somewhat reminiscent of the younger Terence Stamp in period roles. The chemistry of the two men’s relationship is much altered, informal and blokeish, less Boswell-Johnson and more Butch-Sundance—the forty something mastermind with his thirty-something smooth operator sidekick.
Two flamboyant bachelors living cosily together in Baker Street is a situation perhaps open to misconstruction, and as if to set things straight Watson gets himself engaged to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), who figured in the novel The Sign of Four, but remained a background figure after that. The great Holmes’ deductive powers land him in hot water when he first meets Mary, and generally he doesn’t disguise his pique and possessiveness over this change in circumstances. Holmes himself has a tentative love interest in the form of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a femme fatale from the story ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and the only woman for whom the original Holmes expressed an admiration. Here Irene, a corseted siren, has her own dubious agenda, and at one point she leaves Holmes in handcuffs minus his kit, a scenario that I don’t recall from any of the stories or novels…
Similarly the villain of the piece, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), has no precedent in the original material, and was loosely based by the writers on Aleister Crowley, including black magic as part of his portfolio of skulduggery. This creates the opportunity for Hammeresque scenes of rituals involving black-hooded figures, daggers and pentagrams; and occult elements are woven into the mystery that Holmes must solve in order to save the country from the designs of the evil lord. Along the way there are numerous fights and chases, some involving impressive locations, such as Liverpool Docks, Freemason's Hall and various cellars and tunnels. Familiar tropes of the action genre are present, such as fight footage treated for heightened effect, large-scale CGI-enhanced sequences of peril, one involving a half-built Tower Bridge, so that Victorian London gets made over like Gotham City.
But the heart of the original material concerns the workings of the great detective’s mind and any adaptation must strongly feature that. In keeping with the action gloss, Holmes’ deductive reasoning, together with his slick Bartitsu-derived fighting methods, are shown in slowed-down flashbacks and flashforwards, like exploded diagrams in technical manuals, all the better to appreciate Holmes’ alacrity when the action is run at normal speed. It’s effective and it heightens the sense of Holmes as superhero, and it fits in well with the other treatment devices.
Overall the film’s recreation of a Victorian milieu and underworld is pleasing, scoring highly in design and photography, though some of the action sequences are stagy and the use of CGI is glaring in places. If there is a major let-down it’s the story itself, which has strayed too far from Conan Doyle into potboiler territory and concludes in a tad too neat and tidy fashion, undermining to some extent what has gone before. Nonetheless the film works as action-entertainment, and for Guy Ritchie fans there are plenty of colourful supporting geezers, such as the ever reliable Eddie Marsan as Lestrade and the not-to-be-messed-with seven feet tall Robert Maillet as Dredger, with Mark Strong lending suitable Gothic menace as Blackwood.
And obviously this is no isolated film but the start of a franchise, and with its basics soundly in position, the scripting has room for improvement—indeed the hovering presence of arch-nemesis Moriarty can already be felt, limbering up for a hopefully better and more elaborate second instalment, much as the Joker did, biding his time till The Dark Knight. Robert Downey Jr. does work as a different kind of Holmes for today, bringing a fey comic edge to compliment the intellectual gravitas, recalling his performance as Charlie Chaplin. And the ease he has with Jude Law, which carries into the character relationship, is a firm foundation to build upon. It seems ‘elementary’ that the film will be popular—though that’s one word you won’t find this particular Holmes using!
Stills © Warner Bros.