Don’t blame Robert Downey, Jr., if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle forgot one of the ingredients from which he invented Sherlock Holmes. In Chapter 2 of “A Study in Scarlet,” the first Holmes novel and debut appearance by the great detective, Watson makes a list of Holmes’ attributes. Number eleven is this: “Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.” In the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volume 3, resident Sherlockian Leslie Klinger notes that there is no instance of Holmes actually displaying his singlestick prowess. Since I haven’t read the entire canon (yet), I had to rely on The Source of All Truth (Wikipedia) to determine that the short story “The Solitary Cyclist” is an example of Holmes the Boxer. Neither Wikipedia nor Klinger’s footnotes indicate an adventure where Holmes uses a sword.
The point is this: The Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Downey reconstitutes a part of the character Doyle originally intended to write about but seldom did. Since Holmes is one of the world’s first superheroes, it stands to reason that he’d get himself into some situations that require more brawn than brain. What the new film illustrates, however, is that Holmes deploys both in the solving of a crime.
I won’t lie: when I first learned that Downey was going to play Holmes, I was skeptical. I appreciate Downey for the great actor that he is but I didn’t think Holmes was the part for him. Up until Christmas Day, Jeremy Brett is, for my money, is the quintessential on-screen Holmes. Brett still is the quintessential Holmes if you take into account the stories Doyle wrote. However, what Downey captured--with the able assistance of director Guy Ritchie and Jude Law’s Watson--is nothing less that the heart and soul of the Sherlock Holmes character.
Any true iconic character withstands the test of time. Batman went from detective in the 1940s to the guy who fought aliens on alien worlds in the 1950s to the guy who delivered punch lines in the 1960s to a return to his darker roots in the 1970s. James Bond has a similar character arc and, many would argue, it wasn’t until 2006’s “Casino Royale” that the true, literary Bond emerged on the silver screen. I won’t go so far as to say Downey’s Holmes is the true Holmes but he is a reflection of what’s on the page taken to a new level.
Besides, we’ve already been here before. Over the weekend, Turner Classic Movies ran a Holmes-movie marathon, showing many (all?) of the great Basil Rathbone films. As Robert Osbourne pointed out after showing the first two films, the Victorian setting of the traditional Holmes stories was just too quaint while Nazi planes dropped bombs on London. The first film studio, 20th Century Fox, dropped the franchise and Universal picked it up. The first thing Universal did was plop Holmes and Watson in 1940s war time. They fought Nazis! At least Downey had the decency to remain in Victorian England.
With these paragraphs as prelude, on to the film. As you can gather, I consider Downey’s portrayal of Holmes to be excellent. Holmes the Man is a genius. As such, he is cursed by his genius. Downey’s take on how a man like Holmes would live his life is spot-on by modern standards. I’ll admit that seeing Holmes as a dirty person, devoid of basic hygiene, shocked me. I’m used to the meticulous detective (a la Brett’s version of Holmes or television’s Monk) who is so neat and ordered as to be obsessive. However, if you take one of Holmes most famous quotes as truth (“I abhor the dull routine of existence.”), then you can easily see how Holmes would consider bathing to be a bother. Downey’s accent does go in and out but what do you expect from an American doing a Brit. At least it was better than Kevin Costner's Robin Hood. Holmes’s arrogance is on full display as well as his deviousness. In one of the best exchanges, Watson offers a meta-question to Holmes. He asks, basically, with all that Holmes does to him (and here he lists many of the little scenes from various stories), why he, Watson, still remains by Holmes’s side. It’s an honest question for a modern audience, one Watson doesn’t answer in the film.
Watson. If the new film does anything lasting, it showcases that Watson is a capable partner of the great detective. The biggest flaw in the Basil Rathbone films is Nigel Bruce. I hate the way Bruce plays Watson as a fat, bumbler not even having the intellect enough to wash Holmes’s clothes. The man’s a doctor. He has to be smart enough to attend school. Up until Jude Law (happy birthday!) donned the tweed, Jeremy Brett’s first Watson, David Burke, was my sole choice for Watson. Jude Law is now the quintessential Watson. He plays Watson as a man of action, a trait straight from all the stories. Where Holmes thinks, Watson wants to *do something.* In many a story, the only thing for the duo to do is wait, something at which Watson always chaffed.
Not so in this film. Jude Law clearly shows that Watson is a torn man. He’s fallen in love with Mary Morstan (a character from The Sign of the Four) and wants to marry her and have a normal life. He’s also in love with the life of adventure Holmes provides. (And I’m not going into the whole homoerotic thing here. All you need to know about two men who care for each other was taken care of with William Shatner and James Spader in “Boston Legal.”) More than once, Law’s facial expressions show the torment and joy Watson experiences, often simultaneously. Law also shows the smile as Watson removes his coat and prepares for a fight. He makes his choice by the end of the film but, as you know from the stories, he keeps knocking on the door to 221b Baker Street.
The story in the film is chocked full of good old pulp and adventure storytelling devices. Lord Blackwood (played by Mark Strong, a man who resembles the original artist’s interpretation of Holmes from the Strand magazine) is revealed to be the leader of some mystical cult and is hanged. No sooner is he dead than rumors of his resurrection spread. His tomb is empty so it must be true. There's a bit of "Da Vinci Code" in here as well. Ironically, it takes half of the film before someone actually hires Holmes to stop Blackwood. Up until then, he’s been working “for” Irene Adler.
Another character to jump from one of my favorite stories (“A Scandal in Bohemia”), Adler is the only (?) person to beat Holmes at his own game. That Doyle chose to make this character appear in the first ever Holmes short story (and why) is clearly an area for further study. Adler, here, is a twice-divorced thief and former lover of Holmes. I didn’t have a problem with indicating Holmes loved a woman. In the story, he falls in love with Adler’s mind. Here, in the movie, he just included her body as well. I’d have liked to see more Adler, to be honest, but I thoroughly loved the mysterious person for whom she worked. Rachel McAdams did a fine job here and I’m looking forward to future appearances.
Now, I’ll admit that the story in the middle part of the film was quite thin. Yes, it all connects at the end but the whys and wherefores were a little lacking. Suffice it to say, Holmes and Watson do their thing and London is saved...or is it?
Two more points to make. The narrative mystery involves the construction of a Victorian, steampunkish, weapon of mass destruction. Said device uses technology that was brand-new in 1891. That Holmes and Watson could be so clearly perplexed by the new device was stellar. It was something they could not have imagined and, thus, made it an excellent harbinger of the second movie.
If you watched “The Sixth Sense,” you might’ve had the same reaction as I did. Once the twist was revealed, you immediately wanted to watch the film again and see if you could spy the clues. You’ll have the same reaction with “Sherlock Holmes.” As in all good mystery films, the detective has his moment in the spotlight. As TV’s Monk used to say, “Here’s what happened.” When Holmes does this, he reveals all the clues (with visual flashbacks) that led him to the culprit. As soon as he did this, I wanted to watch the movie again and see if the visual clues were present. Can’t wait for the DVD and my pause button.
“Sherlock Holmes” is a terrific film, full of modern action-movie splashes with heaping helpings of witty, tête-à-têtes from Holmes/Watson and Holmes/Adler. As with “Star Trek” earlier this year, I laughed out loud more than I expected. The scenery is rich and detailed and you are reminded of how dirty late Victorian London really was. And the scenes that set up the sequel are splendid. The performances by Downey and Law are nuanced and well-done. They capture the spirit of their literary forebears well and I eagerly await their next film together.