The Awesome Is Afoot: SOA Reviews Sherlock Holmes

17 Feb

I’m aware that I’m probably the last horse to cross the finish line on this subject, but contrary to popular belief I do have a life outside the confines of this blog – not much of one, mind you, but I try to get out when I can, and very rarely do those activities include a trip to the theater.  Too often I’ve been let down by movies over-hyped by friends and colleagues to the point where, upon watching them, I’m left with a profound feeling of disappointment when I spend twelve to fifteen hard-earned dollars only to be treated to forty minutes worth of commercials and trailers (first one bad, second one good) followed by two hours of sub-par entertainment in an environment remarkably akin to a monkey cage at the zoo.  And the monkeys have cell phones.

Every so often, however, I come across a film that falls into one of the two Good Movie categories I admit to: either a) incredibly dense and thought-provoking with outstanding writing, acting and immersion, or b) genuinely entertaining in a “turn off your brain and watch the spectacle” kind of way that speaks directly to the submerged mediocre urbanite that’s walled up, Cask of Amontillado style, deep in my psyche.

I’m pleased to announce that sometimes my cynicism is unjustified and Hollywood occasionally hits the mark in their seemingly-endless stream of sequels, remakes and abominations of other people’s intellectual property.  I’m speaking, of course, about director Guy Ritchie’s recent opus “Sherlock Holmes”.

I went into this movie with a very dim outlook.  I’m a fan of most of Guy Ritchie’s work: “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” rank among my favourite films of all time for their rapid-fire dialogue matched only by the intensely raw, fast-paced cinematography that has become something of a Richie hallmark.  These movies were so good I can forgive him for bedding that walking corpse Madonna and making her the focal point of his career during their marriage.  Going into “Holmes” I wasn’t actually aware that Ritche was in the director’s chair, and to be honest the movie gave few hints as to who was piloting the ship – I was shocked to note Ritchie’s name in the credits.  But my dim outlook had less to do with Ritche and more to do with the film’s content.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big literature snob, and with a background that spans the fiction gamut from Homer to Chaucer to Laurence Stern to Khaled Hosseini, I consider myself worthy of the title.  As a child I was a big fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s titular stories and novels chronicling the adventures of the intrepid Holmes and his loyal compatriot Dr. John Watson, and when I saw trailers for the film remake that looked for all the world on par with the likes of “Van Helsing” or “The Brothers Grimm” (also known as “let’s take a cerebral story and make it palatable to the American public through the generous addition of explosions and choreographed fight scenes”), I was predictably incensed.  Why, I thought, can Hollywood not come up with something original for once, rather than bumblefucking their way through somebody else’s story?  Surely, I presumed, another graduate of the Michael Bay school of Totally Unnecessary Action Sequences In An Otherwise Good Movie would be just as unremarkable as every other popcorn-selling edge of your seat thrill-a-second snorefest that’s come before it, all the while dancing gleefully on the grave of the idea’s progenitor.

In my estimation “Sherlock Holmes” was misrepresented by its marketing department.  Take a look at this trailer and tell me what you see:

You saw exactly what I saw, didn’t you?  A series of fast-paced clips featuring fist fights, gunshots, explosions, clever action movie one-liner repartee, a scantily-clad Rachel McAdams, suggestions of the supernatural, a stuntman diving into the Thames, and a scantily-clad Rachel McAdams.  This doesn’t look like the stalwart, patrician, intellectual Holmes I’d come to expect from the stories, I thought.  And the casting seemed questionable to me – leaving aside the scantily-clad Rachel McAdams who would incontrovertibly put my ass in a seat, the unlikely duo of Robert “Iron Man” Downey Jr. and pretty boy Jude Law left me scratching my head.

Now I’ll admit I haven’t seen the much-touted Marvel film, and much as I enjoyed his performance in “Tropic Thunder” I wasn’t a huge fan of the film itself, so I didn’t really have a bar by which to measure what kind of Holmes Downey would turn out to be.  As far as Law is concerned, he just struck me as a strange choice: “Closer” is one of my favourite movies of all time, and he’s appeared in several other films I’ve really enjoyed, but he struck me as being too serious for a role that, from the preview, looked like the straight man in a buddy-cop flick.

It turns out the trailer is about as far from the actual film as you can get.  Ritchie was working with a huge story that was practically written by committee: the original story was written by Lionel Wigram and Michael Robert Johnson, and then adapted to the screen by Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg.  That’s a lot of fingers in one pie, but somehow they managed to craft a cohesive, compelling story line that was remarkably true to the original idea set out by Doyle.

Now before the rest of you literary nerds jump down my throat, I’m aware that not everything lined up perfectly with the original stories.  Liberties were taken, as they always are in adaptations.  Here’s a rundown.
Downey’s Holmes downplayed the detective’s arrogance and cold demeanour in favour of highlighting his eccentricities: I liken his performance to a pleasing mix of Johnny Depp’s Hunter Thompson and Hugh Laurie’s Gregory House.

In the novels, Holmes is portrayed as single-minded in his pursuit of the truth with very little patience for human weaknesses like affection for others; Doyle was quoted as saying Holmes “is as inhuman as a Babbage’s calculating machine and just about as likely to fall in love.”  The only woman to capture his attention was Irene Adler, endearingly portrayed in the film by the scantily-clad Rachel McAdams (who was not, as this review might suggest, scantily-clad throughout the whole film, but I am eternally grateful for the scenes in which she was), who was the only woman in both prose and movie versions to ever challenge Holmes in an intellectual sense.

Many of Holmes’ unusual character traits were hinted at in the novels, but not often portrayed: for example, few casual fans are aware that Holmes was actually an accomplished boxer and swordsman, lending credence to his impressive streetfighting skills in the film.  The one and only Ritchie-ism I noted in the movie involved the excellent scenes in which Holmes would choreograph his planned method of attack prior to implementing it to some considerable effect against his opponent.  The cinematography had Ritchie written all over it, and the concept lined up perfectly with the analytical mindset of both Movie Holmes and Novel Holmes.  Certain holdovers from the books were more apparent: the detective’s ever-present tobacco pipe, for example, and his proclivity toward the violin, his interests in chemistry and botany, and his remarkable abilities as a master of disguise, survived the transition and were highlighted in the film.  Even some of his trademark arrogance showed up in his interactions with the long-suffering Inspector Lestrade, and in a particularly memorable scene with Watson’s fiancee which (without giving away spoilers) is probably my favourite scene in the whole film because it works so perfectly to explain Holmes’ inherent misanthropy.

More interesting than the character in a vacuum was Movie Holmes’ relationship with Watson: in the books, Watson (who served as primary narrator for most of the stories) played the role of devout sidekick as well as housemate for a portion of the detective’s career, but the relationship between the two was never what could be described as warm.  In fact, there is only one instance in which Watson sees a hint of genuine regard and affection from his partner; from “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” in which Watson takes a bullet for Holmes:

“It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”

This underlying sentiment is beautifully played out between Downey and Law throughout the film: one of the movie’s major plot arcs involves Watson’s impending marriage and henceforth retirement from freelance detection, and Holmes’ subsequent attempts to bring him, with less and less subtlety, back into the fold.

Watson as a character was realized in a way that, to me, actually made more sense than it did in the books.  According to his backstory, Doctor John Watson was a veteran of England’s military actions in Afghanistan, who spent seventeen years working with Holmes and documenting their adventures.  But throughout the novels, Watson downplays his own importance and even his own aptitude in matters unconcerned with medicine in favour of elevating Holmes to legendary status (a point Holmes took issue with in the novels – he accused Watson’s writing of being “sensational”), often painting himself as clueless and even bumbling.

Jude Law’s portrayal of the good Doctor makes a hell of a lot more sense to me – he’s a professional, yes, and far more typical a human specimen than the oddball detective, but he’s also savvy and streetwise, capable of taking care of himself in a fight (which one would expect of a war veteran) and even having garnered some of Holmes’ vaunted methods of deduction.  In Downey’s words in-character, “It does make a considerable difference to me, having someone with me on whom I can thoroughly rely.”  That’s the advantage of film: in the books we had to trust what Watson was telling us, and it’s entirely possible he was being ridiculously modest.  In the movie, we see Watson outside his own narrative framework from a distance and can draw our own conclusions.  I’m willing to bet Doyle would have agreed this version of Watson is probably a lot closer to the so-called “reality” of how the Holmes stories played out.

There’s really not a lot I can say I didn’t like about this movie, but since that’s what you people come here for, I’m not going to let you down.  The pacing is solid for an action movie, but if you’re a die-hard fan of the methodical, procedural detective drama this isn’t the movie for you – and if you, like me, really hate endgame expository dialogue holding your hand through things you’ve figured out for yourself and the audience should have, you’re in for a treat because there’s plenty of that.  Mark Strong was appropriately over-the-top as villain Lord Blackwell, but at times I felt like he was a step and a half away from twirling his moustache and tying a scantily-clad Rachel McAdams to a railway track – that speaks more to the dialogue than his performance, which was delightfully creepy, and it’s really the only time I felt the dialogue came in sub-par.

My major beef, if there is one, is that Holmes’ substance use was conveniently ignored or at least downplayed – there was mild suggestion that he might have a drinking problem, which has nothing to do with Novel Holmes, but all the heroin and cocaine use from the books has been omitted.  I couldn’t find definite evidence to support this, but my assumption is that middle-class America isn’t quite ready to deal with a hero who uses now-illicit drugs to help him solve criminal cases (even though that use wasn’t illegal during Holmes’ day).

The problem is twofold – there’s this incorrect vision of Sherlock Holmes as some kind of proper gentlemanly type when in the novels he was anything but, and for some reason it’s still totally okay with Ma and Pa USA that Jack Bauer beats the everloving shit out of terrorist suspects and employs illegal torture tactics, but heaven forbid a character of historical fiction should have a vice or two.  But really that’s just nitpicking.  At least they didn’t include that stupid deerstalker hat, which wasn’t even part of the canon to begin with (apparently Downey opted to go with a different kind of hat for the film, and often no hat at all – good choice Robert).

Normally I’d say I was pissed that “Sherlock Holmes” was so obviously set up for a sequel – the main Holmesian villain Professor James Moriarty is only hinted at throughout the flick, maintaining a Dr. Claw-esque presence in the darkness for most of the film, and it’s made very clear that Movie Holmes will have to face him in an inevitable sequel.  Normally I’d be pissed, but this time I’m going to go on record saying “Cool, I can’t wait to see the next instalment”.  Never thought you’d hear that out of my sour face, did you?  Well, even I have to like some things.

Final thoughts?  If you’re looking for a fun, immersive flick that you can enjoy alone, with friends, or even with your girlfriend (as long as you don’t spend too much time ogling scantily-clad Rachel McAdams), this one comes with the Alex James Seal of Approval.

To quote the great Holmes in his original medium (from “The Copper Beeches”), “Crime is common – logic is rare”.  Well, movie adaptations of canon works are common.  One as good as “Sherlock Holmes” is as rare as logic.  Or people who care what I think about movies.  Thanks for playing along.

6 Responses to “The Awesome Is Afoot: SOA Reviews Sherlock Holmes”

  1. Shayla February 17, 2010 at 6:20 PM #

    I understand why they switched Holmes’s addiction from harder drugs (gotta keep that PG-13 rating), but I agree it would have been better if they’d stuck to the book.

    I also agree entirely on the action sequences. Most people who haven’t read the books think the action is out of place, but although Doyle didn’t seem to like to write out action sequences, he often hinted at them (hyperbolic example: “It’s a good thing you’re an expert in Japanese throwing stars, Holmes, or we’d never have escaped that flaming pirate ship alive!”).

    The only thing that kind of disappointed me in the movie was the portrayal of Irene Adler. It was hinted that she was possibly comparable to Holmes in wit (not quite, I’m sure, but kind of, and isn’t that why he liked her, isn’t it?), so I guess I just expected more out of her. Maybe she just got overshadowed by how awesome the portrayal of Holmes and Watson were. I’m sure fans wanted her in because she’s Holmes’s only real love interest, but honestly I think she could have been left out.

  2. Megan February 18, 2010 at 12:32 AM #

    First of all, I loved the film.

    Second of all, I’ve already bored my friends with this rant, but I was doubly delighted by the film’s plot revolving around the occult/illuminati/whatever you wanna call it- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, unlike his fictional creation, was absolutely fascinated with spiritualism. He belonged to organizations that held seances, and he was one of the people that sent Harry Houdini hate mail whenever Houdini tried to debunk various frauds that pretended they could “contact the other side”. Doyle thought, I shit you not, that Houdini actually had magical powers. (Despite Houdini trying to convince him otherwise)

    After working in the magic industry (that is to say, legerdemain) I developed a great respect for Houdini as something of a real-life Holmes, and I was soured to learn that Doyle fell to such odd superstitions in his later years. So the film, to me, feels like it not only did the character justice, but it took the story somewhere Doyle never could have taken it. Which is a fitting tribute.

  3. Simon February 18, 2010 at 9:29 AM #

    SOA approved and great review. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. Aizen February 18, 2010 at 3:53 PM #

    Did not like Rachel McAdams in this film. Even though you have an American portraying Holmes (who’s accent was mehh, passable but meh) there is a wealth of talented British actresses that could have brought a lot more to the table than her.
    Hate to shoot down a local girl.

  5. PatriciaRG December 3, 2012 at 3:47 AM #

    so, I came across this while doing a search for a deerstalker hat, and I know it’s been two years and all, but allow me to be this really annoying internet anon for this once.

    Though the deerstaker hat is never mentioned on any of the stories, Sidney Paget, the artist who did the illustrations for the magazine where the stories where published, did portray him wearing the hat several times.
    His daughter later said that the reason her dad had for this was merely “because he liked the deerstalker hat” and he actually wore it a lot himself. I can’t remember if it was the magazine director or Doyle whom requested Paget to do the illustrations for the SH shorts, but since they were part of the original publications I think they can be considered canon.
    this is just my opinion, thought I may share it.
    also, I haven’t watched any of the Sherlock Holmes movies, but I really liked this review. may just go ahead and check out the movie some time

  6. this content July 16, 2013 at 7:16 AM #

    I’ve learn a few good stuff here. Certainly value bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how much effort you place to create any such fantastic informative site.

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