Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes

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.


Laurie Powers said...

The best review I've seen of the movie yet. I was determined to hate this movie and yet you've convinced me to see it.

David Cranmer said...

I'm glad you like it because it will probably be the only film I see in a theater this year. For my money, Downey is the finest actor of this period and on a helluva role.

Unknown said...

Excellent review! Thanks for the fairly spoiler-free synopsis. Great, now I have to fit another darn movie into my schedule.

Cheryl Morris said...

Thanks so much for your terrific review! You're one of the few to point out, right from the start, the fact that Doyle establishes in the very first story that Sherlock Holmes was a man of action -- even if we didn't always get to see this side of him in the stories. (We did in some of the movies, however, including "A Study in Terror" and "Murder by Decree".) As a long-time Holmes fan, I loved the film, especially the performances of Robert Downey and Jude Law. I can't wait to see it again.

Charles Gramlich said...

I really like DOwney as an actor so I'm glad to hear this. I wasn't expecting a positive review from most purists. I'm glad to see I'm wrong.

Bruce said...

You nailed it perfectly Scott since I was super leery about the casting early on.

Lee Matthias said...

Good points. I agree that Holmes was meant to be a man of action but never quite showed it in the published cases. There are, of course the ones that are still in that "battered tin dispatch box," that Watson had all the cases to be kept from the public, like The Giant Rat of Sumatra. If anyone's interested in more Holmes, I just released my Holmes pastiche, THE PANDORA PLAGUE (http://www.pandoraplague.com), chronicling the first association of Holmes and magician Harry Houdini. And I'll be blogging about writing a Holmes story in the Doyle style in my Thursday (12/31) posting at my blog, The Last Reveal (http://thelastreveal.blogspot.com/). It's a blog on screenwriting and films, primarily. Check it out!

Chad Eagleton said...

I loved the film. I thought they did a terrific job, especially considering what they had against them. They had to work against: a) the popular perception of Holmes shaped by things like the Rathbone movies (Watson is a fat moron, Holmes wears a deer stalker, says, 'Elementary'), b) closer readers of the 'Canon', c)a tight economy in which movie goers want some action for their 10 bucks.

I thought everything worked well. I like that they took those elements that normally aren't given screen time in the stories (like Holmes knowing how to handle himself) and brought them out front, I liked Holmes manner and the state of 221 B, I liked the relationship with Holmes and Watson (Downey and Law had great chemistry), there were a lot of nods to the actually cases (like Scandal in Bohemia and if I watch it again, I plan on taking notes to see if using Watson's impending marriage as the main anchor it does fit solidly withint the timeline of the other things mentioned).

I was glad they took the pulp elements and amped them up. If you can step back from the reverence of Holmes for a minute, I think you can acknowledge that at it's heart-Holmes is more than a little silly and over the top (like any pulp).

I only had three minor complaints: 1) could have done with a little less Da Vinci code, 2)the pacing could have been a little tighter (I didn't need everything explained to me with visuals), 3)I abhored McAdams as Adler. She was too young. Downey looked all of his 40 running up on 50 and McAdams looked like his daughter. I don't think she had the weight as an actor, when up against Downey and Law, to come off as the only woman to ever outsmart Holmes and, giving credit to Baring-Gould here, poke at Holmes' deep-seated hang-ups on the opposite sex.

But I still loved it.

And this'll get me beaten somewhere on the street, but I'll say it, this was the definative Holmes.

Paul D Brazill said...

Well, I was a bit ..okay .. a lot sniffy about seing this But you've pretty much convinced me to give it a shot! Cheers and all the best for the new year, Scott.

Scott D. Parker said...

Laurie - Thanks for the praise and let me know what you think of the film.

David - The only film? Wow. And I'm coming to the same conclusion about Downey. Couple of days ago, we watched The Soloist. He was so good that I forgot I was watching Downey.

Doug - Fit it in! I still want to see It's Complicated.

Cheryl - I'll admit that, if I hadn't re-read the four novels this month, this facet would have escaped me. Very glad I read the books. Now, I'm going to re-read the first two collections and read the others.

Charles - As I wrote in the review, purists should be happy that the character has survived for 125 years. I'll admit that, when I discovered Holmes, I hated the Holmes vs. Nazis movies. Now, I see that they, too, are reinterpretations.

Bruce - I rarely get to see a film twice in the theaters anymore (babysitters, price). Am giving serious consideration to seeing this one again (after It's Complicated).

Lee - As a historian, I have always loved when Holmes meets a historical figure. I am off to your blog right now and will read your entry tomorrow as well. Thanks for the link and I look forward to reading.

Chad - Well, you've certainly gone out on a limb. That's okay. The limb is pretty sturdy. Now that you point it out, I can see what you mean about McAdams' age. Ironically, on The Soloist DVD, there was the original trailer for Holmes and I noticed some scenes were not in the film. Perhaps there's more. Regarding the pulp elements, that was one of the best aspects of the movie. I just realized that, while I have you as a friend on Facebook, I do not have your blog on my Reader. I am rectifying that right now.

Paul - Glad I helped you to buy a ticket. Let me know what you think about the film.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am so glad you liked it. And gave us such a great review in terms of its strengths.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Brilliant review - Downey is superb. Chaplin is one of my favourite films and I will get around to seeing this. But I'm something of a traditionalist and I'm dubious if it's for me.

Scott D. Parker said...

Archavist - I guess I'm one of those guys who can straddle both worlds. I love the Jeremy Brett programs (and have a few here at my house from the library) but I also found equal enjoyment with Downey. Heck, I just recently re-watched "The Case of the Silk Stocking" with Rupert Evertt as Holmes. It's in the traditional vein and was fun to watch, too.

Randy Johnson said...

Much as I like Downey, I was predisposed to hate this as I'm one of those traditionalists. That feeling was reinforced when Downey hinted that Sherlock and Watson had an intimate relationship.

roddy gillespie said...

Wow - I am a 52 year old male and I took my wife and 13 year old son to see this film. We all LOVED it - it transcends generations. Both male leads were outstanding and MUST work together again - chemistry was palpable. Having said that - all the main characters were totally believable in role and the performances were unforgettable. Sherlock Holmes is an icon for all and this 'update', making him younger, tougher (physically) and more 'cool' will attract a much younger following. Sequels to follow soon I hope. You know, I did not even realise that Guy Ritchie was the Director until the final Credits - then it all clicked - gritty, down to earth, real life stuff!! More of the same please. 5 Star

Grace said...

Thank you, Scot, for a thorough and enjoyable review of Sherlock Holmes. After reading your post, I feel inspired to re-watch Holmes a few more times.

Personally I don't feel Rachel McAdam looks too young as Irene Adler for RDJ's Holmes. For me, it's not the actors' biological age but the nuanced performance they deliver that truly convey the attributes of the character, including age. RDJ's Holmes comes across to me as someone in his 30s and RM's IA, late 20s to early 30s. They share great spark together. I'd like to see more Irene in the sequel.

Scott D. Parker said...

Randy - There is Downey the Actor and Downey the publicity machine for the movie. I think his commenting about the possibility of a gay relationship between Holmes and Watson was merely a marketing ploy. As I said, it is entirely feasible for two men to care for each other and there be no romantic feelings whatsoever.

Roddy - I think there is definitely going to be one more, if not two. They've a tough second-act to follow since The Dark Knight and Empire Strikes Back showed you can improve on an already good film.

Grace - Thank you. I want to see the film again...and soon. I haven't seen Avatar yet or It's Complicated so I'll have to choose. But I can guarantee this: Day One of the DVD release, I'm watching the film again. I've started reading and re-reading the short stories now that I read the novels last month. It's an enjoyable thing and will write about my thoughts when I'm done.