Friday, January 1, 2010

Sherlock Holmes Film: Fun, Familiar, Faithful?

Outside of Arthur Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories, my favorite adventures and adaptations will likely always be the Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing television shows, the book The West End Horror, and the Jack-the-Ripper yarn Murder by Decree. The new Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie, is nowhere near as good as any of the above. However, the flick does easily trounce the appalling pastiches Without a Clue, Young Sherlock Holmes, LXG, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the silent John Barrymore film, and many of the Basil Rathbone vehicles set in America. The Guy Ritchie film was fun. It has merits that have been overlooked in negative reviews (see Slate), and its flaws are not worth getting too upset over.

Overall, I enjoyed the Guy Ritchie movie more than I expected to, possibly because my expectations were in the cellar - the coming attraction made this new film appear to be another Van Helsing travesty, which had no script to speak of and in which the title character was functionally replaced by Soloman Kane. What I got, instead, was a film with something of a plot, several clever scenes of deduction, and some dialogue that was laugh-out-loud funny. Even the action scenes were reasonably good, as far as that sort of thing goes. The cast was solid. Rachel McAdams, Jude Law, and Mark Strong were all charismatic and attractive, even if they didn't feel "Doyle" enough. Robert Downey Jr. was very good as Holmes. He is an actor I have great respect for in general and he does well here. Still, it would have been nice if a genuine British actor had been cast in the part, so that there would be no issues about an "assumed" accent. How different would the film have been if Holmes had been played by Christopher Eccleston, David Morrissey, Robert Carlyle, Ralph Fiennes, or Liam Neeson? Would there be as much kung fu in it?

I suppose it is depressing to assert that, in these times, when Dante's Inferno has been turned into a video game in which Dante must rescue Beatrice from hell by hacking up demons, I am glad we can have a Holmes film that is even remotely faithful. As it is, I found myself impressed that the screen writers knew that Holmes locks up Watson's money (an obscure detail from "The Dancing Men"), and I liked seeing Holmes putting bullets in the wall of 221 B in the VR pattern. The film did change the circumstances under which Holmes first meets Mary Morstan, messing with "The Sign of Four," and that interfered with my suspension of disbelief more than anything else, oddly.

So, what will Victorianists think? Remembering how much Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma has been hated, I'm guessing many won't like it one bit. Certainly, most everyone will be bothered by something. Roger Ebert complained of Holmes making a mess of his quarters while in a drugged stupor, but that seems to me consistent with the Doyle stories (and Jeremy Brett). That false example aside, Ebert's main point, of course, is one I agree with - both Holmes and Watson don't seem to have any poise or gentle-manliness left at all. (But that is unsurprising since the recent Casino Royale stripped all of the polished veneer from James Bond in a similar fashion.) So Holmes and Watson are too much like a Victorian Batman and Robin, and Irene Adler has turned from a Lillie Langtry double into a Catwoman stand-in. Fortunately, she is less evil here than she was presented in the very mediocre Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars. I am not sure to what extent all this bothers me, as one viewing is rarely enough for me to be sure what I truly think of a film. Again, it all could have been a lot worse.

Believe it or not, my main problem with Sherlock Holmes is that the plot is not innovative enough, and too similar to other recent Holmes movies. We've just seen Holmes upset by Watson marrying (the excellent The Case of the Silk Stocking), we've seen attempts by villains to take over the British Empire (The Great Mouse Detective) and dangerous cultist villains (Young Sherlock Holmes). On the other hand, I don't remember ever having seen a solid dramatization of Holmes and Watson meeting for the first time in the fashion they did in "A Study in Scarlet," and wish the film would have portrayed that instead of focusing on the legendary partnership at its moment of greatest crisis.

As a side note, for those who are interested, this is yet another recent genre film that functionally casts the villain as George W. Bush. Lord Blackwood is trying to replace science with religion, take advantage of a divided America to found a new Empire, and is horrifying his father with the lengths to which he is willing to go to achieve these ends. And the secret society that runs the British Empire is meant to parallel the secret society that (supposedly?) runs America these days. So the film is really more about modern America than Victorian Britain, as many of you have suspected...

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