Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Robert Downie Jr., Jude Law
Running Time: 129 minutes
When I was a boy, I devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories — and still credit my reasonable powers of observation and fair ability to “read” people to my studied enthusiasm for those imaginative tales.
Every few years, I get the itch to re-immerse myself in that wonderful world of Victorian crime and intrigue, intense problem-solving matched with equally intense pleasure-seeking, and the power of pure friendship and pure intellectualism. Most recently I’ve finally (after 20 years!) gotten a chance to watch Tom Baker play the world’s foremost detective from a 1982 BBC production. Baker, who’s best-known role (The Doctor of Doctor Who) is more than a little inspired by Doyle’s detective, was actually bloody marvellous in the traditional theatrical interpretation of the part, rather talky and stagey and with an emphasis on the character’s regal bearing contrasted with his inability to cope with anything beyond crime-solving. It’s available for rental and Holmes purists will probably find themselves generally delighted at this unfairly-overlooked production.
When this new Sherlock Holmes film first came around last Christmas, I had mixed feelings that ultimately kept me from seeing it in a cinema until now. I had great confidence that Robert Downey Jr would be fine in the lead, despite the alarming 80s hair he boasts in the promotional poster (thankfully not replicated in the film), but I frankly don’t care much for Guy Ritchie’s output; neither his choice of usual subjects (British gangland) or his particular directorial style (no more than 10 minutes till the next implausible action sequence) have ever sat well with me, though I’d be the first to admit the two generally go together successfully.
The trailer didn’t inspire me much, except to dare to hope that Jude Law (who plays Watson) would actually be good, something I’ve never managed to see happen before (including, most recently, in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Holmes as a boxer? A dashing ladies man with all the right words? A Victorian London that appears to have a lot of explosions??
But one should never trust trailers. The actual film itself is, in my view, Ritchie’s most successful effort at being light-hearted, and while great liberties have been taken with the source, it is still identifiably Holmes and Watson, and makes for a solidly entertaining film that deservedly did well at the box office.
While the film is carried by the strong performance of Downey as Holmes, this is actually more Watson’s movie, a very wise move on the part of the screenwriters and director. Watson is often played (ever since Nigel Bruce ruined the part) as a bumbling fool whose only job is to provide narration and makes Holmes look good, but in this version we get something much closer to the Dr. Watson we met in the books and stories; a colleague who, after several years with Holmes, has picked up much of his power of observation, a foil who Holmes himself sees as the man he might have been, a faithful chronicler but not always so loyal a friend, often getting tricked or challenged into participating further.
Jude Law has, to my eyes, never ever been better than he is here. I have never much cared for him and find most of his performances wooden, underplayed and dull, but he clearly had a strong regard for Watson and a good chemistry with Downey, and hits exactly the right note.
As for Downey, his accent is (as Ritchie called it) “flawless” and his interpretation of the part is entirely suitable. If Doctor Who ever got made into a another big-screen movie and the current incumbent was unsuitable, Downey would be my second choice — his entire performance here might as well be one long audition piece for The Doctor. Though he lost some weight for the role to get into fighting trim, I still don’t see him as quite physically right for the role — Holmes was a wastrel in many ways, and the usual consequence of such addictions is a gauntness Downey just doesn’t possess. But he’s more than adequate in the part and apart from some occasional mumbled lines (usually spoken too quickly to be heard clearly), he provides the necessary mix of gentlemanly bearing with mischievous misanthropy, adding style and wit, particularly to his relationship with Inspector LeStrade (Eddie Marsan).
The plot is scarcely worth mentioning, in part because its not based on anything in the Conan Doyle canon and in part because apart from its overall raison d’etre — purporting to show the first meeting of Holmes with his later arch-enemy Professor Moriarty — it doesn’t matter really. The mystery is lovely and atmospheric and, as we know full well going into this, fully solved by the end. The supporting players are equally trivial to the point of the film, which is to showcase the complex relationship of Holmes and Watson. The whole film is actually structured more a Dan Brown runaround (such as The DaVinci Code) than a proper Holmes tale, for example eschewing the traditional “told after the fact” narrative angle and omitting the also-traditional part where a visitor to Baker Street sets up the entire background, one of Doyle’s most common literary devices. But it’s all been cast aside so that we may spend more time in the present moment with Holmes and Watson and watch their bromance take its roller-coaster ride through some very scenic set pieces.
Instead of all that drawing-room chat, we are dropped right into the thick of things, with Holmes and Watson stopping the ritual murder of a young girl by occult leader Lord Blackwood (bit of an in-joke, that name), played by Mark Strong. Blackwood tries his best to convince Holmes of the existence of the supernatural, even returning from the dead after three days (it’s been done), but Holmes is having none of it. Methodically and (as usual) against time and obstacles both external and internal, he unfolds the mystery and (along with the help of Rachel McAdams as an American former lover and jewel thief) saves the day.
London is of course a great place to shoot a Victorian mystery as its quite easy to use current locations with a minimum of dressing. The problem with Ritchie is that he has no concept of the word “minimum” — sets are usually over-dressed and dwelled on more than the actors. Some scenes appear to be chosen purely for their visual value rather than any practical meaning; a prolonged fight scene with Holmes bare-knuckle boxing a larger fellow exists ostensibly to show his ability to calculate his victory over an opponent, but this exact same ability was showcased in the first scene of the film — so this repeated scene is merely an excuse to show the same thing, only this time with Downey’s shirt off.
In another example, being chased by a giant French henchman (Fre-henchman?), the action allows for a large vessel to be loosed from its moorings and fall into the Thames, where it sinks entirely out of sight. The Thames, at its absolute deepest point and highest tide, wouldn’t be quite 20 metres (the spirit of Conan Doyle was notably absent during the “logical sequence of events” part of writing this screenplay). Not only that, the boat slipping from its drydock is entirely unnecessary and adds neither atmosphere nor content to the story.
The big climatic fight on the top of the still-being-built Tower Bridge was probably enjoyable to mainstream moviegoers but struck me as very unrealistic, breaking my suspension of disbelief by being so obviously green-screened. It’s no accident that it’s the only really “talky” part of the movie, the part where Holmes explains to the villain (as though he didn’t know) — and the audience — all the ways in which he’d rigged his “supernatural” tricks. I guess Richie can’t abide the idea of people just explaining things without visual drama all around them. At least he confined himself to only one huge explosion this time.
For a “Hollywood” movie (albeit shot in England), Sherlock Holmes is generally very successful at making the character more appealing to modern (read: less entertained by displays of cleverness) audiences; as a movie its good fun and I’m not surprised that the estate of Sir Conan Doyle gave its blessing, despite it being an original story. The choice of a “supernatural” villain was both genre-appropriate and created a nice contrast of styles. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack makes use of authentic sounds and even a few period songs alongside the usual “action” soundtrack requirements, so I’d rate it above average. The editing was, as is typical of a Guy Ritchie production, rather slapshot and trendy. Like the sets, it felt overworked at times. One fears for Mr Ritchie’s ability to stay focused for any lengthy periods of time.
This interpretation of Holmes may not go down as a classic, but its well worth your ticket or rental money, features a surprisingly strong pair of leads, and preserves the colour, charm and brains of the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes. Despite the sometimes ill-fitting choice of director, I’d say this is about as good a Sherlock Holmes movie as you could possibly hope for out of a mainstream US studio.