I have no idea how or why a review of this was not written sooner. It seems to have already permeated into the public consciousness as an official “good” movie, with a sequel (and a second one in the works), a 7.5 rating on IMDB, and a former “next biggest” director regaining his confidence after a string of artistic flops.
But does it deserve it? After all, Holmes is not just a revival on the part of director Guy Ritchie, but the return of a character that is as important to film as he is to literature. He is the most portrayed character in film (according to the Guinness Book of Statistics that can be used to Win Bar Trivia). Basil Rathbone and Benedict Cumberbatch made their careers playing the character; Billy Wilder’s last moment in the critical spotlight was adapting the Holmes stories. He is the go to figure of a detective in any media, and his analytical thinking and his vices have been borrowed in many other works. What is Showtime’s Dexter if not a portrayal of Holmes as a psychopath who has replaced an addiction to cocaine with an addiction to dismemberment?
But that’s the thing – playing the character straight in a world that is so familiar to the world is dangerous. Any mention of Holmes usually illicits a response of “been there, seen it” and a film that does not have a trace of irony about its origin runs the risk of being ignored after it leaves theaters. But then, playing the character as parody has the same problem -he’s been deconstructed so many times that not even the foundation is left.
But this Holmes does neither of these things – and that’s what makes it good.
As I am sure you could already guess, the film involves famed detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) trying to solve the mystery of how the seemingly supernatural serial killer Lord Blackwood (Eddie Marsan) who has come back to life after his execution (after Holmes was responsible for his capture). Meanwhile, Holmes tries to woo Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a professional thief he admires (who has also hired him to find a missing man) and tries to come to terms with Watson’s impending marriage.
At first glance, this work does resemble another deconstruction of the Holmes mythos. Gone are the trademark hat and pipe (although Holmes is still shown plucking a violin) as is most of any indication that Holmes would be a respectable member of society. He is, instead, played like an idiot savant, who can barely care for himself and unwittingly causes ruin to those he knows. Any flashes of brilliance he has seem to be…almost accidental, in a way. The film takes great care to show us how cluttered Holmes’ mind really is when he solves a case. Holmes’ attention to detail presented in this film would today be considered the sign of a serious mental illness. Maybe that’s the whole point; Holmes in today’s world would be prescribed Prozac and sent on his way.
The film is also noteworthy for the interesting dynamic between the characters of Watson and Holmes. This is not the leader and sidekick role that each character had to take in countless other film. Law’s Watson seems to be fed up with Holmes the way someone is fed up with a family member who won’t leave his house after a visit. Holmes, meanwhile, often treats Watson as a surrogate younger sibling – at times in love with him, at other times fed up with the fact that Watson tries to challenge him. Sure, those elements may have been there before, but Holmes was always sort of worshiped in the previous adaptations. But Ritchie’s Holmes is special because Watson may very well be the one who is right.
That is why this version worked so well for me – it certainly makes up for the films flaws. To clarify, it seems to have the usual blockbuster dependence on action scenes that are quite out-of-place in a Holmes story, and the solution to the mystery is actually quite convoluted – although , the set up to the mystery (which deals with scientific explanations for seemingly supernatural events) is pure Holmes. Also, I could say that the Adler/Holmes romance goes nowhere. Holmes appears as such an asexual character that the idea of his wooing a woman (without going into a checklist of how to attract the opposite sex). Better would have been to have Holmes explore his feelings through Watson’s marriage – which Ritchie seemed to want to take. This is not necessarily McAdam’s fault – she just wasn’t given enough character to work with.
But then, other Holmes adaptations have had these problems – and more. This does enough right that it makes the entire premise seem new. The best moments come when the film focuses on the little human details – like when Watson releases Holmes’ flies to annoy him, or when Watson is forced to explain the sound of gunfire coming from Holmes’ room. The other films cannot even fall back on those moments – they were too formulaic and took no risks with the characters. Ritchie did, and made them seem new.
Sherlock Holmes is not very deep, but then, neither were the stories from which the character sprang from. But Holmes is great entertainment that is wonderfully made and features convincing performances. This is about the best possible adaptation of Doyle’s works that is possible – so yes, in response to my original question, it is good. Now, for another question – where was I when the sequel was released?