“Sherlock Holmes” – Doyle WOULD be Proud
Sherlock Holmes hails as the most portrayed movie character of all time with 75 actors providing their unique spin to Doyle’s legendary character in over 200 films.
Having grown up reading some of the Holmesian “canon”, I always found Basil Rathbone’s, who always portrayed a great antagonist too, portrayal very “true” to the literary characterization of the great detective – as much as I longed for some sardonic wit. I have a friend across the pond who swears Jeremy Brett’s rendition of this classic figure in the 80s and 90s for British television was the most true- to-form.
Yet, due to the canon being so developed and intricate with its various givings and treatments of and back-stories to Holmes, greater difficulty arises in passing judgment over a proper and commendable portrayal of the detective. Many devoted fans even believe there exists a notable difference in Doyle’s version of Holmes after his three year hiatus in the 1890s to focus on historical novels. When challenged on this point, Doyle once wrote in his defense that though Holmes survived the fatal danger of Reichenbach Falls (while fighting Professor Moriarty), he never recovered as the same detective from the pre-Hiatus years.
With the release of the most recent addition to the Doyle adaptations, Sherlock Holmes – starring Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, and Mark Strong – has fostered much hubbub over its similarities and lack of to the literary legend of lore. “Victorian action hero”, “James Bond of 1891”, “kung fu detective”: these are some of the many sobriquets reviewers have applied to this Guy Ritchie directed version of mystery, violence, and even magic (or is it?).
Now, in all honesty, I am not an impartial reviewer in this case. Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino often have extended fights in my head over who is my favorite director with either Vinnie Jones bashing Tarantino’s head in or Uma Thurman slicing off that of Ritchie’s. Hell, I even find positive merit and interest (no I was not smoking pot) in Ritchie’s philosophical and psychological work, Revolver, which dwindled at the box office and was critically panned. Being fully experienced in this able director’s repertoire, I definitely expected a grittier, more fervid aggression layered into this rendition when entering the theater to screen Sherlock Holmes.
Ritchie has achieved renown for making crime cool and even comedic reaching critical acclaim early-on with Lock, Stock,… and Snatch. So I was not surprised when the straggly-haired, disheveled Holmes did not don his Sidney-Paget-illustrated deerstalker cap and inverness cape. It was the reinvention of Dr. Watson as a a charming and handsome man of action and the plot’s reliance on a magical secret society (Dan Brown’s jealous they thought of it before him) that most struck me. It was the drowning demands of numerous efforts and loose ends that most disappointed me.
Guy Ritchie usually has maintained a level of autonomy and self-creation in his directing and screenwriting. But, with more interest by a major studio in this film’s production and a plot from a plethora of different and differing writers (including Ritchie), the captivating, organic flow of Ritchie’s is lost. The need to mold a new appeal for Holmes, to compliment Ritchie’s energetic desire for driving action, and to remain faithful to the tradition of Doyle all combine with the hope that this new version may – and it will – lay the groundwork for a blockbuster trilogy. And so key characters and characteristics are set forth, discombobulating action ensues, and Holmes’ compensating wit for the Doyle fans expands to a point that doesn’t even fit in the over two-hour run time.
Ritchie wants his quick, pulsating action sequences so he keenly applies Holmes’ skill of deduction to the intimacies of anatomy and the laws of physics as he dissects the impact of potential blows. The studio wants big-action sequences with prolonged intensity vis-a-vis CGI, mass mayhem, and major explosions. A shipyard battle during the middle of the film carries on and disrupts Ritchie’s organic flow to the point that I was reminded of that Family Guy episode where Peter fights the giant chicken. Thus, the problem or shortcoming of Sherlock Holmes is not in a reinvention of character but in a manipulation of nature as the film tries to cater to one too many interests – not to mention serving as a painstaking, extended teaser for a sequel.
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie; it is definitely one of my favorite of this last year. If anything, I sympathize with Ritchie and am pleased his energetic style helped shape the film into a truly entertaining work. Regardless how picky of a critic one is, I would be surprised if one leaves the theater not at least somewhat delighted by the film. Such adulation does not stem from this film being a mere popcorn-thriller; there are deeper elements at work here. Hans Zimmer composes, as always expected, a wondrous score, which has already received honors; Sarah Greenwood led a superb production design team to reimagine a gritty, dark, and vivid Victorian era London.
The casting is commendable. Mark Strong, whose physique and appearance probably better resembles Doyle’s conception of what Holmes would look like, plays Lord Blackwood – an evil murderer who desires to take over an ancient secret society through “magic” in order to wield the power of the British Empire. Strong truly demonstrates himself as a versatile actor once again; sadly, because of his skill, audiences rarely recognize him on screen as he superbly alters his appearance per role – my favorite being the analytical, anxious, and austere hitman in Revolver. Downey’s “Holmes” provides the audience with a more endearing character, who ponders and pontificates for laughs as much for the law (I look forward to a YouTube mash-up of this Holmes with Hugh Laurie’s “Dr. House” whose apartment number references that of the great detective). Jude Law brings an air of freshness and openness to the role of Watson – a welcome considering Law’s up-tight persona when often in character. Instead of a bumbling, loyal follower like prior adaptations, Dr. Watson freely engages in verbose tit-for-tat with Holmes making the duo quite the “Odd Couple”.
Some reviewers have even stated that the presence of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a fan favorite from the Doyle series and love/infatuation interest of Holmes, primarily works to diffuse the homoerotic nature of Holmes and Watson. Now, as Adler is a key character for this potential film series, I felt her appearance made sense; McAdams performed her role superbly making her tainted and irresistible allure towards Holmes felt by the viewer. Yes, Holmes becomes all emo over his dear friend Watson moving on with his life; yet, even in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”, the stoic Holmes expresses sorrow at the sight of his partner in crime solving being slightly wounded. If anything, this bro-mance aims for the film to take on a more engaging and amusing appeal through such banter and wit…not to establish some homoerotic subtext.
In the midst of all the burlesque and action, I do believe that Doyle would find his detective of old still alive on the screen. At times, Ritchie seems to even go out of his way to keep the tradition alive. The sometimes patriotic Holmes adorns his Baker Street walls with “VR” (Victoria Regina), he demonstrates a talent for disguise, he cuts himself to perform experiments, he’s a habitual tobacco user, and he boasts quite the “bohemian” (as Watson would say) lifestyle in his cluttered living quarters. With his expressions and delivery, Downey nicely displays Holmes’ eccentric nature and givings to OCD and ADHD symptoms; in the stories, Doyle made Holmes into a morphine addict and habitual cocaine user – a quick line here and there in the movie would have surely explained some of the detective’s idiosyncrasy and behavior.
Though rarely carried out in Doyle’s telling of Watson’s account, it is surely feasible for Holmes to be capable of such violence as portrayed in the film. In the books, Watson tells the readers of Holmes various capabilities whether they be the mastery of singlestick, skill with a blade, expertise in baritsu, or a knack for bare-knuckle fighting (as the detective had a former career making a name for himself in the ring).
The continued adaptations and revisions of Sir Doyle’s classic character can bring about much debate and analysis over authenticity. What should be recognized instead is the versatility and enduring nature of Holmes – a character that has even been lampooned by Gene Wilder. Sherlock Holmes does not reinvent the shrewd sleuth. It builds upon the original source material while infusing it with new life. The voiced-over, slow-motion action sequences and the nefarious aims of a magical secret society both cater to modern audience interests – interests following the success of the likes of the Bourne movies and the DaVinci Code. We like our action fast and our humor even faster. This is Guy Ritchie’s playground, which he’ll hopefully perfect with sequels to come.
Roger Moore, upon the release of Quantum of Solace, lamented the loss of the Bond tradition and denounced the new proclivities of James Bond to violence saying, “that’s keeping up with the times. It’s what cinema-goers seem to want and it’s proved by the box office figures.” Unlike Moore, I think Doyle would accept the reinvigorating of his Holmes today. Undeniably, the popularity of the movie in itself will spur more interest than before in the author’s works. And, if Holmes has to evolve to fit a modern audience’s view and be a financial success…? Well, Doyle would accept that too. After all, it was Doyle who revived a different Holmes from the dead after “the Great Hiatus” – much to the welcome of well paying publishers.
Holmes’ acute perceptions and penetrating deductions, though overwhelming at times when needing to meld all the loose elements together, truly come off as natural and effortless by Downey – trademark Holmes. On contraire, it is the movie’s overreaching demands and hopes as an epic, Hollywood action flick desperate to distinguish itself from a popcorn-thriller fray that comes off as dragooned and forced upon the screen. So, Sherlock Holmes falls short in at least one respect to the traditional sleuth: it tries to be more than it can – with noticeable intent. Still, Downey’s Holmes provides a balance to all that the movie aspires to and Ritchie’s penchant for entertaining flair keeps the viewer engaged. Not elementary, Watson. But still good, movie-watching fun.