- Sherlock Holmes
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg
Sherlock Holmes – Robert Downey Jr.
Dr. John Watson – Jude Law
Irene Adler – Rachel McAdams
Lord Blackwood – Mark Strong
Inspector Lestrade – Eddie Marsan
Mary Morstan – Kelly Reilly
Sir Thomas Rotheram – James Fox
Lord Coward – Hans Matheson
Mrs. Hudson – Geraldine James
Beautiful Sets, Robert Downey, Jr., and a Smart Script Breathe New Life Into a Whodunit That’s Been Done a Hundred Times Before
Hollywood’s reaction to a dearth of new plots seems to be to reanimate old corpses, sometimes to great effect and sometimes to the shudders of moviegoers and critics alike. This year’s Star Trek managed to add elements of action and adventure to a television show so many see as boring space drama, and Guy Ritchie’s latest movie Sherlock Holmes does the same for the astute, placid literary Englishman. Those who take great pleasure in decadently executed Victorian period pieces, mysteries, logical deduction, or watching Downey, Jr. punch big bad guys in slow motion will love the movie. Others may not be so enchanted.
Holmes is one of the world’s most enduring figures, literary or otherwise. Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective has seen hundreds of incarnations and dozens of copycats, and has become more than a household name. Ritchie, whose previous films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are cult favorites, brings a violent and adventuresome sensibility to the often sedate Holmes. Conan Doyle’s legend left behind a mental image, compounded by pop culture, of a rather mellow English gentleman in a deerstalker hat, puffing on a pipe and wandering about a crime scene with avidly shining eyes. Ritchie’s version of Holmes, played impeccably by Robert Downey, Jr., is these things but also much more: a bare-knuckle boxer, a martial artist, a loyal friend, and an occasional lover of women.
The film follows the famous duo of Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) as they work to solve a series of ritualistic murders, then to explain the resurrection of the murderer, Lord Blackwood, after his hanging. The movie takes place at a time when superstitions and science clashed raucously (this has been explored before in movies like Sleepy Hollow and From Hell), and when Blackwood appears to practice the black arts, London’s masses respond with frenzied hysteria. Holmes and Watson’s mission is to discover the truth behind his apparently supernatural resurrection and to uncover the plot of the secret society that wants a stranglehold on the city. Up pops Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an old love interest and nemesis of Holmes (Watson posits that Holmes’ fascination with her stems from the fact that she’s outsmarted him), to complicate and speed the process. Each step of the way reveals obstacle after debacle, sometimes resulting in injuries to person and pride, and as the duo wade through the mounting evidence, it becomes clear just how science weighs in against superstition. Unfortunately the whodunit has been done so many times that, even in a new light and with wonderful new effects, the movie seems overlong and a mite predictable.
The story takes place in dingy, dreary, nearly monochromatic 1890s London, which is rendered beautifully by combining various locations with CGI—the movie was shot in London, Manchester, and Liverpool, and the result is a genuine sense of Victorian England. The costumes and sets are flawlessly detailed and genuine, from Holmes’s dingy parlor to Watson’s impeccable suits. The action sequences are built around the time period, and though they are at times so overdone as to be cartoonish, they do compound the truly dirty sense of a London swimming in mud and poverty. The shipyard at Chatham Historical Docks and the half-finished Tower Bridge (a nice symbol for a London begrudgingly plodding into a new technological era) are backdrops for some action scenes. Ritchie has a penchant for slow-motion violence, and that’s present in Holmes’ bare-knuckle boxing; the interesting touch is the way his ferocious logic works in tandem with such inherently chaotic violence.
Downey, Jr. is something of a phoenix; his career fizzled in the 90s with drug addiction and criminal mishaps, but soared in the last few years with hits like Iron Man. He’s a rare actor who seems to become his character while still retaining a bit of himself, and he plays slightly-nutty-and-fiercely-intelligent better than almost anyone. He’s a witty, fast-talking, and wide-eyed version of Holmes, and it works wonderfully in Ritchie’s update. Jude Law, playing trusty friend and sidekick John Watson, is the perfect foil and comrade to Holmes, taking his eccentricities in stride and stepping up to bat when it’s his turn to fight. In pop culture representations, Watson is often an inept foil to Holmes’s brilliance. Not so in Ritchie’s version (nor in the books). Interactions between the two are truly enjoyable. Rachel McAdams’s Adler is a secondary character, strong-willed and tough but secretly vulnerable; she doesn’t contribute much to the plot, but hovers at the outside of the impenetrable Holmes-Watson dichotomy.
At two-plus hours, the film is overly lengthy, with a few scenes that offer explanations avid viewers won’t need. Exposition, though, is part of the Holmes legend, and his fierce mind and logical deductions are of course the most important part of the character. The fun of watching the film doesn’t come from solving the mystery, but from the action scenes (cartoonish though they may be), the gorgeous feel of Victorian London, and the relationship between Holmes and Watson. In this new take on Holmes, Ritchie succeeds in adding some rock and roll to a familiar story. It’s probably not a major addition to Ritchie’s oeuvre, nor to the countless action films of the decade, but it’s an enjoyable movie with a good new twist on an old plot.