Sherlock Holmes – now there’s a name that has been around for ages. The famous series of detective novels and stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle more than a hundred years ago are still being read and what’s more, are still being made into films.
The most recent of which is called Sherlock Holmes and was released a little more than a week ago on Christmas Day, 2009. This film, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson. is doing quite well at the box office and has an excellent chance to be nominated for some Oscars.
The film takes place in London. This is not the light and airy London that we recently saw in Last Chance Harvey with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Or the London we saw in Woody Allen’s Match Point – those settings were sunny and beautiful and romantic. No, this is the London of the late Victorian 1890’s – a London that is dark, gloomy, overcast, and foreboding. This is the London where the common man in the street usually needed a shave, a bath, and most likely used a tooth-brush only on rare occasions.
In fact, Ritchie and his gaggle of screenwriters have re-imagined both Holmes and Watson. This is not your 1939 version with Basil Rathbone as Holmes – cerebral, nattily dressed, and most gentlemanly; and Nigel Bruce as Watson – stodgy, loyal, and most often far slower on the uptake requiring Holmes to often lead with, “Elementary, my dear Watson...” by way of explaining how his deductive powers arrived at an answer.
No sir, Downey as Holmes is presented as a drunkard, a man completely lacking in personal hygiene, and one given to physical action at the drop of a hat. He not only figures things out – but he can more than hold his own with snappy repartee , or his fists or with a pistol.
Law has been given a new and improved Watson. This Watson is handsome, equally good with fists or a handgun, and he’s no longer Holmes’s aide-de-camp. He’s on equal footing with Holmes and can snap-off a one-liner for laughs often besting Holmes.
Now before many of you take me to task for what I’ve just written – the reality is that nearly all of the prior film and television versions of Holmes and Watson sanitized Holmes. In Doyle’s books, Holmes was often a layabout, a drug user, an abuser of Watson, and someone who most folks wouldn’t want to be associated with. Ritchie has brought many of those elements back to the screen, and while this new 2009 Holmes may not be a pretty sight, he’s not any less brilliant in solving the case, or beating the stuffing out of someone in a punch-out.
As a viewer you will have to deal with the fact that the film actually is divisible into quadrants which recycle themselves throughout the film:
Holmes and Watson – a bro-mance might be your first guess
Holmes and Adler – best described as a flame and moth attraction
Holmes and Watson versus Lord Blackwood – murders most foul with corpses and clues
Action Set Pieces – Brawls, explosions, firearms, and lots of CGI
The plot is a bit convoluted, and Ritchie gives us plenty of red-herrings and misdirection which certainly adds to the fun. In short, Holmes is fighting a villain who employs the black arts, magic, and a bit of the occult and super-natural to terrorize London, and to keep you as a viewer involved.
The film has some flaws – this London is dark and atmospheric. It is as if Ritchie has intentionally shown us an onscreen London distinctly matching and in tune with the mood of the story. But the artistry is marvelous – you can almost see the soot in the air. And as often is the case in detective stories, we get a how-the-case-was-solved after the fact. However, the summation by Holmes is rattled off by Downey so rapidly, that you have to listen closely and even if you do you will still miss some of it. Which leads me to say, that this film will probably play better for you on a second and third replay at home via DVD.
Mark Strong does a wonderful turn as the nefarious Lord Blackwood. He’s ice-cold, and he’s nearly iconic as a dastardly villain.
Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, a reoccurring character in the Doyle stories, is the hot flame to Downey’s moth. She is superb, but it could be argued that the role is under-written or is more salad dressing than salad.
In lesser and supporting roles, Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, and Kelly Reilly as Mary Morstan, who is betrothed to Watson, bring life to what are essentially stock character roles.
Summarizing – this is a first class entertainment. While it doesn’t have jaw-dropping visuals, or a plethora of slow-motion effects, it does have an excitement factor at the level of thrilling, and a sufficiency of intelligent writing that will sustain your interest rather than having you wish for the next action sequence to come asap.
I’ll recommend the film and say that when you head out to your local cineplex to watch this film, you should set aside all your preconceived thoughts about Holmes. In short leave your old Holmes at home. As many have said – this is not your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes.