Sherlock Holmes

Since his introduction in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has become a touchstone of our culture, who like Robin Hood, Dracula or James Bond needs to redefine himself for every new generation. This is especially true in the age of mass media, when our culture is evolving so rapidly. We need to look at these old stories in the light of our present lives and beliefs. For us, Holmes represents the triumph of rationality. He is a person who can find the truth, speak it and change things. We need to believe that can happen.

None of those other characters I mentioned has quite the special relationship with cinema that Holmes has. At an estimated 200 adaptations in film and television, the first in 1900, no other character, fictional or otherwise has been portrayed as often. And even though we revere Holmes, or perhaps because we love him so much, we can’t resist tweaking him a little bit, playing with the formula. There have been parodies and re-imaginings. Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution explained Holmes’ extended disappearance after the events in The Final Problem as Holmes going into detox for his cocaine addiction. There’s at least one Basil Rathbone movie where he’s catching German spies during World War II. To me, and I imagine to many in my generation, the BBC productions from the mid eighties, starring Jeremy Brett, are definitive. For one thing they adapted the actual stories, where so many others felt the need to write their own. For another Brett’s performance didn’t dilute Holmes’ prickliness or drug use.

So now Guy Ritchie takes on the challenge of Holmes. Ritchie got his start making comic dramas about eccentric English gangsters, actually not a bad direction from which to come at the material. Holmes is still basically Holmes here. He is hard to get along with, especially when he’s bored and he is brilliant. But Ritchie has chosen to emphasize Holmes’ physical abilities. It’s a valid emphasis. Doyle describes Holmes as being a formidable fighter. In The Speckled Band, when Dr. Grimesby Roylott tries to intimidate them by bending a fireplace poker, Holmes is able to straighten it out again with his bare hands. In various other stories, he is described as a fencer and a bare knuckle boxer, who knows something of martial arts.

What gives me pause about the project is the story. It’s basically a comic book tale about a plot to kill everyone in the House of Lords. The main villain is Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong and based loosely on Aleister Crowley, a notorious occultist at the turn of the twentieth century. Ritchie and the screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham drag Moriarty and Irene Adler into it and the whole thing is overblown in a very un-Holmesian way. Holmes would take a case finding a gem in a goose’s craw if it interested him. Doyle never had him saving the world. All that came later.

Robert Downey Jr. does a fine job here capturing Holmes as a brilliant but socially dysfunctional human being, especially around Irene Adler, played by Rachel McAdams. Jude Law plays Watson as an intelligent partner to Holmes, which is how he is written. But he is also out of patience with his roommate’s eccentric habits. I will say that I don’t mind Ritchie changing a few things but I do object to the implication that Watson has a gambling addiction.

The look of this film is sumptuous.  I gather they use a lot of CGI for the backgrounds because Victorian London just doesn’t exist anymore, but they also found or designed some truly seedy looking sets. There were a few points where I didn’t understand what was being said, both because of thick accents and because sometimes the dialog was too far down in the mix. But overall this is a well made film.

So the final verdict is that Sherlock Holmes is promising. It’s obvious from the ending that they want to make a sequel. Hopefully it will follow the spirit of Conan Doyle’s creation a little more closely. I’d hate to think we’re that far removed from them.

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