The new film Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie, has done very well indeed at the U.S. and global box offices since its December 25 release, and it has evoked much dispute between Holmes purists and Holmes evangelists. Here are opinions from two very different mystery fiction aficionados.
I watched Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) along with a group that mostly knew Sherlock Holmes only by name or from the British Granada TV adaptations. The room was full, mainly with adolescent high-school students on holiday. As all of my friends know that I am a great admirer of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, there was the general feeling that I would find the film heretical. Accordingly, I was left the last seat in the row—I assume it was taken for granted that I would leave before the end.
However, several months had elapsed since I’d first seen the infamous “naked Holmes” trailer, and I had had enough time to recover from the first shock. Obviously I would have preferred a faithful adaptation or at least a recreation of the original stories and characters, but I was prepared to take this simply as an action film and forget that there were characters called Holmes, Watson, Hudson, Lestrade, and Adler in it.
The film begins with Holmes and Watson preventing a satanic ritual human sacrifice performed by a certain Lord Blackwood. Both character and actor seem to have come right out of a Dracula z-movie. In this scene Holmes uses his intellectual abilities mainly to ascertain where to lay his punches, which sets him immediately as an action hero. The pattern of this scene is repeated throughout the film. After a lot of fighting, Blackwood is arrested and imprisoned. Even if the atmosphere is a bit corny, this sequence is quite good.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is not. Blackwood is tried, sentenced to death, and eventually hanged. Watson himself signs the death certificate. Nevertheless, Blackwood seems to come back from the dead, takes over a sinister secret society straight out of a second-rate Dan Brown pastiche, and reveals his plans to achieve world domination, which apparently demand further ritual killings. Other fighting scenes ensue, some of them quite good, and there is also some mildly funny repartee between Holmes and both Watson and Irene Adler (with whom, of course, Holmes has had an affair).
But underneath this surface of fast action and supposedly funny dialogue, nothing really makes much sense. Blackwood’s plot is ludicrous and doesn’t manage to convince even within the film’s universe. The sense of cosmic fear he is supposed to have instilled amongst the London populace is never really conveyed to the viewer. The ritual killings are revealed as conforming to a kind of pattern that has previously been used literally dozens of times in crime fiction, written or filmed. The way Holmes detects this pattern and “deduces” Blackwood’s ultimate goal is also highly predictable and would only be possible to someone endowed with divinatory powers. The bad guys are immediately identifiable by their sinister look. This seems like the adaptation of a comic book aimed at pre-adolescent readers.
In addition to a weak plot, there is a good deal of lazy (let’s put it that way) screenwriting. The ritual killings that take place after Blackwood’s “resurrection” have a motive, even if unbelievable; but the ones that had taken place before the action began are not explained at all, especially in light of the final revelation of what Blackwood really is. Blackwood’s motives to appear as a dark lord are also impenetrable; this wouldn’t seem necessary for the fulfillment of his plans, especially in light of a very tangible source of power he is eventually revealed to possess.
Also, the screenwriters seem not to have noticed that being an illegitimate child of a peer, whose ascendency is unknown to but a few, Blackwood would not be known as Lord Blackwood and would be even less (as is intimated towards the end) likely to be sitting in the House of Lords.
Another problem: Holmes has a gypsy fortune teller play a trick on Watson, but between the discovery of the material clue that leads them to the place where the gypsy is and the performance of the trick, Holmes and Watson are always together, and it would therefore be impossible for Holmes to communicate with the woman. If this had been a novel, any average editor would have had demanded a rewrite of these parts on first reading. The fact that they made it to the final version of the screenplay is not a good sign.
The film is also structurally indecisive, and I wouldn’t be surprised to know that the final result was a compromise between opposite views on how the film should be made. In fact, producers, director, and screenwriters seem to have hesitated between at least some degree of faithfulness to the original spirit of the Holmes canon and its use as a mere franchise. This hesitation is evident in several aspects.
The universe created by Conan Doyle is sometimes shown in a way which is reasonably close to the original stories (the 221-B Baker St. apartment is convincing, Holmes’ unconventional behavior and Watson’s physical courage and loyalty are in character), but most of the times the character portrayals are at the extreme end of caricature (Holmes’ degree of untidiness is previously unseen, Watson has an exaggerated gambling foible) or even as far from the original characters as could be (Watson punching Holmes in the face, Holmes’ perpetual facetiousness and implied sexual attraction for Watson, Adler as a common thief). Similarly, the film seems to oscillate between trying to satisfy hardcore fans (Holmes shooting the VR initials on the wall, the presence of Watson’s bull pup, some of Holmes’ aphorisms quoted from the books) and a sub-20 audience eager for another action hero (the constant fighting and explosions, the frequent sexual allusions).
If a faithful recreation had been intended, the current casting should at best be seen as uninspired (Eddie Marsan as Lestrade—extravagantly pronounced Lestrahde by all characters—is the only good choice). Neither Robert Downey Jr. nor Jude Law would be obvious choices, not because they don’t correspond to the viewer’s preconceptions of what Holmes and Watson should look like (Jeremy Brett was also far from the Holmes stereotype and has in fact redefined it), but because of both their personae and limitations as actors. Anyway, they could have played their roles at least satisfactorily if properly directed, but as the director seems not to have made up his mind about what he actually wanted from any of them, he seemingly has left both entirely on their own. The results are disparate: Downey Jr. evidently decided simply to play himself, and Law delivers a performance that is half an impersonation of the original Watson and half an impersonation of a particularly undistinguished nobody.
The set and costume designs are also incongruous. The interiors are scrupulously Victorian, and Baker Street seems inspired by the Granada set, but the rest of London looks like a computer-generated, anachronistic Gotham City. While costumes are generally faithful to the period the story is set in, Holmes’ and Watson’s wardrobes are a ridiculous stylization of Victorian attire (Watson’s outfit when having dinner out with Holmes and Mary Morstan is so appalling it manages to overshadow the fact that Holmes is sitting at a first-class restaurant without wearing a necktie).
The color grading is uneven and blatantly reveals the contrast between the scenes shot against real backgrounds and those whose backgrounds are digitally generated. There are too many slow motion sequences and hysterically edited flashbacks, in the current TV series style.
I could dwell on the distortions of the Holmes universe (Watson seeing patients in 221-B Baker St! Mary Morstan actually being presented to Holmes, as if the events in The Sign of Four hadn’t taken place!). But in my view this is far from being the main problem with this film. After all, some successful Holmes films were notoriously unfaithful to the original stories (such as the 1959 Terence Fisher adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles). No, Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes fails because it lacks a definite choice between being a Sherlock Holmes film or an action movie with a character called Sherlock Holmes, and is mediocre if seen from either angle.
I actually doubt that this film would make any significant money if it were not a Holmes franchise. This demonstration of the ongoing appeal of Sherlock Holmes is one of the positive aspects of the film. The other is the possibility that it may gain some readers for the original stories. Some of my friends who scarcely knew the original Holmes left with the feeling that the film had not been actually what a true Sherlock Holmes story would be, and one of them even asked me for a book so that he could get to know the “real thing.” At least there’s hope!
One may also hope that the implied sequel to this film (apparently featuring Professor Moriarty) and the announced Columbia Sherlock Holmes (with Sacha Baron Cohen as Holmes and Will Ferrell as Watson) will be better, or at least not worse, than this one.
Henrique Valle lives in Lisbon, Portugal. He has read and written mystery stories since age ten. He is currently working on a puzzle-plot mystery novel, a book of mystery short stories, an anthology of Portuguese crime fiction, and his Ph.D.
The new Guy Ritchie film, Sherlock Holmes, is a surprisingly clever detective film, unlike the action rampage the promotional trailer suggested. Instead of making an action rampage with “Sherlock Holmes” stuck on the label (to lure in the illiterati, I suppose), this is a very clever detective film.
Holmes was something of a superhero when the stories about him were first published. Instead of fighting crime with web-slinging or high-tech gadgetry in the manner of current-day heroes, his weapon is his mind, in particular his keen deductive prowess. Ritchie’s film makes something of a modern-day superhero out of him. But contrary to my expectations, Holmes is not killed in this movie. He survives the transformation into a modern hero and emerges gloriously to solve the heinous crime he’s faced with. This character is not precisely the Holmes I imagine (sabotaging Watson’s marriage isn’t exactly Holmesian), but he’s still Holmes, and Robert Downey Jr. is glorious when he plays him.
My main problem when it comes to the film’s characterizations lies with Dr. Watson, who becomes a compulsive gambler to suit this film. Another error the filmmakers made was with Watson’s fiancée, Mary Morstan, who supposedly never met Holmes before, thus obliterating one of the four Holmes novels, The Sign of Four, where she comes to Holmes for help, which is the way she actually meets Watson and eventually marries him. However, as I’m not a fanatic Baker Street Irregular, I am able to let this pass without dwelling too much upon the inconsistency. Jude Law plays the Watson he’s required to play to perfection—again, not exactly the Watson I have in mind but one that works for this film and is played perfectly to suit this purpose.
Rachel McAdams fans may also rest in peace—she is an ideal Irene Adler. The flirting and making out wouldn’t have happened in Doyle’s stories, but it’s irresistible for any director to throw in today, and it doesn’t destroy the film. It works with everything else, and to be honest, it’s enjoyable.
So, yes, the characters emerge slightly different from the ones you find in the book, but honestly, it doesn’t bother me much. This is a very dark treatment of the Holmes material, in the style of Batman Begins or The Dark Knight. I didn’t hear anyone crying foul over those films, so Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t be an exception. The increasing panic and chaos that spreads through London in the film is reminiscent of the slowly growing chaos that becomes more and more bone-chilling in The Dark Knight. And the scene in the trailer where Holmes boxes bare-chested actually works well in the film. Holmes, some may forget, was a good boxer. He had to learn somewhere. The situation is entirely plausible, but in the trailer it seems ridiculous (particularly the slow-motion part, which is also explained very well when seen in context).
The authors of the screenplay get top marks from me. They caught me on one of my very favorite elements in a mystery: the rational explanation of seemingly supernatural events. Holmes was rarely faced with such puzzles in the Doyle canon (the best short story example maybe being “The Sussex Vampire,” although The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most obvious example). Often I’d wish he had created other seemingly supernatural crimes for Holmes to deal with. This film granted my wish, and I sat there thoroughly entertained and enjoying myself.
My one complaint is the vagueness of the hints: obvious signs of [x] that aren’t actually shown until you get to the flashback, gestures of Holmes that go without any explanation until they’re brought up in the solution (easily taken for eccentricities). Hints are given to the viewer, but are not lingered upon. Some vital clues involving chemicals are named only one time in passing, which hardly qualifies as fair play. A few things could’ve been better clued (although one crime was ingeniously and subtly clued), but overall I’m not complaining too much. As a fair-play detective film [one in which all the clues necessary to solve the puzzle are presented to the reader/viewer/listener—ed.], it could use a bit of work. It’s still entertaining, but don’t expect or try to solve everything.
The acting was strong, and I was particularly impressed by the choice for Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ archnemesis (of Reichenbach Falls fame). This perfectly sets up sequels, and apparently one is already in the works.
I’ve been a huge supporter of composer Hans Zimmer ever since hearing his beautiful score accompanying Gladiator. Sherlock Holmes proves that Zimmer is one of Hollywood’s current musical geniuses. This score is fantastic. The final scenes in particular are excellently scored, as Holmes explains everything and a climatic scene ensues.
As for Ritchie’s direction, I’m heavily impressed. He doesn’t make the mistake directors make nowadays in action scenes, jump -cutting and criss-crossing so much that you have no idea what’s going on and where everyone is in relation to each other and the setting (as in the dogfight in Quantum of Solace). The action sequences easy to understand, and his style produces a few memorable shots and action sequences.
There’s a lot in Sherlock Holmes to warrant further viewings. I simply loved the film. It’s flown near the top of my favorite movies list (despite not being quite entirely fair). I’ll certainly be waiting for the DVD when it comes out. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Holmes is still Holmes, living in his messy Baker Street quarters with Watson (who is still Watson). This film does a grand job capturing Holmes’ foul mood in one scene when he isn’t faced with more cases for a while. To sum up: this is a grand film, a pleasant surprise, although it doesn’t play entirely fair with clues. I recommend it for a pleasant evening of entertainment—just don’t expect the Baker Street Irregulars to come flocking by to see it.
The only worry I have now is that people will come to love Holmes for all the wrong reasons. Oh well. You can’t win them all.
Patrick Ohl is a sixteen-year old mystery-fiction prodigy who discovered his love for the genre when reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
And finally, some thoughts from the editor:
As an admirer of Guy Ritchie’s other films—such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and RocknRolla—as well as the Sherlock Holmes canon, I find Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes to be quite enjoyable and amiably silly. Henrique Valle’s criticisms are accurate and apposite, yet as Patrick Ohl notes, the film affords a good deal of pleasure if one refrains from worrying about whether audiences will be given a false impression of what the original stories are all about.
The fact is, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales are rich with adventure and the fun of doing good. The moral battle and strong intimations of danger one enjoys in the Doyle stories are recreated in Ritchie’s film for modern audiences. It’s a comic-book Holmes and Watson story, however, with all the advantages and disadvantages of that style of filmmaking.
The visual style is imported from the Christopher Nolan Batman films, Frank Miller movies, and From Hell. The characterizations are based on superhero films such as Spider-Man and Iron Man. The values the film conveys, however, are the same as in the original Holmes stories, albeit with a good dose of modern latitudinarianism but at a rather salutary level, in my view. One might well see this film as indicating a deterioration of the public’s aesthetic tastes, or one might not. I do not.
This new Sherlock Holmes has a strong story line (and indeed a rather complicated one, as is typical of Ritchie’s films), vivid characters, striking visuals, action, adventure, romance, suspense, humor, and enough logical holes to madden anyone who dares take that aspect of it seriously. The latter is a decided flaw in the film, but one that I see as forgivable in light of the movie’s positives.
—S. T. Karnick