Sherlock Holmes is one of those characters that is immediately recognizable to anybody. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 1800s, he is as much a part of the common culture as Robin Hood and King Arthur, and like those characters is frequently referenced, often parodied, and sometimes mistaken for having been real. I was surprised to find, while looking at IMDb’s page for this film, that it was the first time in a little over 20 years that a film based on Sherlock Holmes had been released in the United States (the predecessor being 1988’s comedy, Without a Clue, starring Michael Caine). This means it’s probable that until the 2009 release of this film, the average American in or under their 30s was familiar with Sherlock Holmes yet completely unaware of any actual work concerning him. I suppose it’s possible the average person my age or younger may have read the books, but I’m a cynic; I read the complete adventures in sixth grade, but I don’t recall anybody else in my class doing so.
Casting Robert Downey Jr. in the title role no doubt went a long way to ensuring that more people could truthfully say they’d experienced a Sherlock Holmes story. So the question to be answered next is did it amount to a good movie?
A good choke hold is the key to any good party crashing.
The story in the movie is an original one not sourced from the 60 canonical stories, but which references them heavily. I caught a few of the lines here and there that had been referenced, but as my memories of the stories are 20 years old (I really ought to re-read them again soon), I’m sure I missed dozens more. The movie pits Holmes against the machinations put in motion by Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a spiritualist whose series of killings Holmes puts an apparent stop to at the beginning of the film… but his death, as he says, is only the beginning. Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) have to figure out Blackwood’s plans, how they’re being pulled off, and how to stop them before time runs out. Complicating matters is the reappearance of The Woman, the only one to outwit Holmes in the original stories, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). A mysterious benefactor (Holmes aficionados will likely guess who) has hired her to interfere with the case, to put Sherlock on a particular path so she can obtain a key part of Blackwood’s plans for her benefactor. (And yes, I’m being a bit vague on details; while Sherlock Holmes is much more of an action movie than is traditional for the character, it is still a mystery in some ways, and I feel it would be uncouth to spoil it.)
I can show you this, though, because although it’s mysterious, it’s not important in any way. Sherlock is just one weird individual.
With the building of a new franchise comes some variation on the characters. In keeping with the action movie nature, both Holmes and Watson are portrayed as capable fighters; this is actually true to the books, where Holmes was a skilled pugilist, fencer, and a master of a Japanese martial art, and Watson is his colleague, respected and considered an equal in standing if not in intellect, as opposed to the bungler he’s sometimes portrayed as in movies. It’s often forgotten in other portrayals, and it’s nice to see it restored here. Holmes’s eccentricities are played up heavily in this movie, exceeding the depiction in the books, but as they tended to be underplayed in other portrayals, it’s all right. He is more socially dysfunctional here than is typical, dislikes the fact that John Watson is becoming engaged, and makes some half-hearted attempts to drive him away from Mary (Kelly Reilly). But while I’m sure some people out there will try and paint a homosexual subtext there, it’s more a matter that Holmes has simply become dependent on Watson as part of his daily routine. It’s implied Holmes simply can’t function without a more orderly mind to keep him in line. What’s more, the two bicker like brothers; there’s that particular combination of pettiness and comfortable familiarity in a lot of their actions towards each other. (Those of you who aren’t part of a pair of brothers, refer to the scene from the trailer in which Holmes is sticking his cane in Watson’s face. The exchange “Get that out of my face”, “It’s not in your face it’s my hand”, “Get that thing in your hand out of my face” is characteristic of a lot of brotherly arguments.)
As the principal roles Holmes and Watson command the lion’s share of the screen time, development, and good lines. But even though the others may not get as much time, they also are engaging characters. McAdams plays Irene Adler as alluring without being over the top, and she has sufficient chemistry with Downey — in a restrained, Victorian sort of way — that it’s easy to see these two being captivated by each other. Hans Matheson has a small but important role as Home Secretary (i.e., in charge of the police) Lord Coward, and plays the role with a kind of smiling coldness that makes you want to punch him in the face (which is a good thing in this case). Eddie Marsan’s Inspector Lestrade seems a bit more bungling than I remember (but that may be faulty memory again), but despite a bit of an adversarial relationship with Holmes remains loyal to the man who helps close his cases. And Mark Strong’s role as Lord Blackwood is sufficiently creepy that he almost makes you believe he is transplanted from a more occult film genre. All of the actors become convincing characters, and their interactions with each other seem natural.
Holmes is so socially inept he isn’t aware it’s rude to turn away from someone while they’re giving their Hannibal Lecter impersonation.
Director Guy Ritchie does some interesting things here with the film. The first is the occasional bit of anachronic order in the story, used to explain some scenes after-the-fact by showing what Holmes was thinking and/or doing. By using this technique, he manages to preserve the effect of Holmes’s cognitive leaps bringing about sudden revelations and keeping them surprising at the same time. He attempts to do something similar with some of the fight scenes, having Holmes calculate the optimal fighting moves before carrying them out, but it doesn’t work so well there. He has the scenes play out in slow motion with Downey providing a voice-over of Holmes’s plan, and then plays the scene out the same way in normal speed. He’s essentially trying to have his cake and eat it too, and I think it would have worked better if he had just kept the slow motion parts for those scenes and not the regular speed. We’ve already seen it, we don’t need to see it again the next second, and the slow-motion version is the more important one to keep there.
Something else that struck me was the color tone for the film. It’s just slightly washed out, muted a bit. This is probably to enhance the suggestion that this is taking place in Victorian England — somehow the Victorian era has acquired a connotation of “brown and grey” in the common vocabulary of today’s artists — and to that end, it works rather well. But it has the interesting side effect that the colors also wind up looking rather like those from older, faded films — and given how rare true splashes of color are in this film, it almost makes one wonder if Ritchie was trying to evoke a small part of the feel of the old black and white Basil Rathbone films, as much as he could in a color film. But even if it wasn’t intentional, it’s still a happy accident, as the mood created fits the movie well.
As I noted yesterday, this was one of the films I managed to snag a free digital copy of. While it’s unlikely to become one of my favorite films, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I’m glad I’ll have the opportunity to watch it again whenever I want, to see what clues I can catch a second time around. I’m also now looking forward to the sequel which is being released later this month.