Sherlock Holmes

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A Passionate (and Dispassionate) New Sherlock Holmes

Oct 23, 2011 (Updated Jul 24, 2012)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Law, Downey Jr., creative direction and editing, artistic sets and costumes

Cons:Complex plot line can get a bit confusing

The Bottom Line: "Data, data, data. I cannot make bricks without clay."


The fame of Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective Sherlock Holmes is so widespread, he hardly needs an introduction. Even if you're not a mystery fan, you've likely, read, seen, or heard enough about Holmes to recognize him when you see him. His cloth cap, meerschaum pipe, and deplorable violin playing have become iconic, as well as his keen observational eye and deductive use of logic to solve puzzles that appear unsolvable. Although his conclusions often seem to involve brilliant intuitive leaps, Holmes manages to convince us, time and again, that he reached them through a dispassionate commitment to logic.

Given the number of screen, stage and literary adaptations, it's not that surprising that Warner Brothers gave us a new feature film version of Holmes in 2009. What is surprising is how fresh they managed to make their Sherlock Holmes, even while incorporating many of the stock iconic elements.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Holmes with a wonderful melancholic intensity. If you saw Downey Jr.'s star-making turn as Charlie Chaplin, you'll recall that he knows how to play eccentric geniuses, and he doesn't fail the viewer here. The canonical Holmes is known for his sober, almost morose personality at times, and the film plays that to the nines, making Holmes unevenly depressive. He thrives on mentally challenging cases that would drive other people crazy, while boredom seems to throw him into dark clouds of despair. His half of the lodgings he shares with the fastidious Dr. Watson, his good friend and detecting partner, are untidy and full of things you might not expect to see in a gentleman's rooms, including bullet holes in the wall. (In one early character establishing scene, we see an intoxicated Holmes shooting at his wall in an effort to discover a way to make guns "quieter," while the stalwart Dr. Watson is in the room next door, valiantly trying to calm a patient who has come to him with a nervous condition.)

As good as Downey Jr.'s Holmes is, I think I was even more impressed with Jude Law's Dr. Watson. Watson, as sidekick and biographer, is a far more dependable and staid character than Holmes, and a lesser actor might have turned in a yawn-worthy performance.  But Law's performance fairly sparkles with sardonic wit. He lets his dependability play off Holmes' ragged intensity so that it's thrown into bold relief. Both men are helped considerably by the fast-paced screenplay, which provides ample opportunity for us to see how well the two of them work together, and to understand how Watson's impending marriage to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) is throwing Holmes into a funk. Watson has made it clear that his move toward marriage will put an end to his dangerous detective work, but Holmes understands (and viewers quickly come to understand too) that Watson has a real quirk of intensity himself. He's smart and loves the detecting business almost as much as Holmes does, and his loyalty to Holmes also makes it hard for him to move on to the next chapter of his life.

It would also be hard for either actor to turn in "boring" performance given the contemporary tone of the whole film. Essentially this is a 19th century mystery unfolding through a 21st century story vehicle. It's a buddy movie/action film. There are a lot - and I do mean a lot - of fight scenes, and even explosions. This contemporary tone is at interesting creative odds with the mood-drenched Victorian London landscape in which the story unfolds, but somehow that seems to work, maybe because it seems to echo the ragged and uneven disposition of Sherlock himself. Even the very Victorian clothing seems invested with a retro/vintage hip feel, at least the way Downey Jr. wears it.

The film's biggest struggle may be with the complexity of the mystery plot itself. Mark Strong plays the main villain, a non-canonical villain named Lord Blackwood. Blackwood has been dabbling in occult magic and has been responsible for a series of gruesome deaths. We see Holmes and Watson capture him in the first, fast-paced action sequence which opens the film, so we assume that another mystery and another villain are coming down the pike. But Blackwood is exceptionally hard to get rid of, even when he's supposedly dead and buried. The odd occult elements of the film, though not my cup of tea, do again provide an interesting contrast for the methodical, logic-loving Holmes, and paint an interesting picture of the real Victorian Age's natural/supernatural tensions. Downey's Holmes seems all at sea for the film's middle third, dealing with forces that would seem to defy his careful, logical approach to problem-solving, and it's almost a palpable relief to see him regain his footing in the final third when light dawns his fevered brain and the answer to all the perplexities seems to burst upon him.

Although most of the acting performances, anchored by Law and Downey Jr., were strong, both Watson's fiancée Mary (mentioned above) and Holmes's old nemesis/girlfriend Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) struggle a bit to hold their own. I'm not sure if this was a case of lackluster casting or less than stellar writing of the women's roles. Mary's part is minor, but we do at least come to appreciate her growing understanding of how important Holmes has been to her dear Watson, as well as her growing respect for Holmes' capabilities despite the fact that he's treated her rather shabbily. Irene's character was far more rich and complex, and she ends up having an important part to play in the unfolding plot, but somehow I just never quite fully bought the chemistry between her and Downey Jr. I do like, however, the way their relationship helped to further define Holmes' character - his weaknesses and his strengths.

The artistry of this film was impressive. Costumes and settings were superb, making it easy to understand how it garnered an Oscar nomination for artistic direction. Director Guy Ritchie and the film editors also made some highly creative story-telling choices that I ended up liking, but which could feel slightly confusing/intrusive the first time through. One reason I ended up liking these elements - mostly creative flashbacks and mental/interior moments showed in slowed-down time - is that they seemed to provide an arresting visual homage to the very literary source material that inspired the film. (I'm a geek that way.) I have a feeling they'd work better the second time through though.

And if you saw this Sherlock Holmes in the theater back in 2009, you just might want to give it another viewing on DVD before December. That's when the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, starring Downey Jr. and Law once more as Holmes and Watson, makes it to theaters.

~befus, 2011

This is an entry in talyseon's It's Elementary My Dear Watson! Mystery Write Off.


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