In the summer of 2009, I found myself in a movie theater (all right, two movie theaters) waiting to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. My parents, bless them, were still into the series somewhat, and I found it bearable for the snarking, so I went along.
So there I am, sitting through the previews and—oh my god, what the hell is that?
It was a trailer for what purported to be a live-action movie starring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved character, that master detective, Sherlock Holmes.
I say “purporting” because all through the preview I was listing in my head the things which were horribly, atrociously wrong: Sherlock Holmes played by the very American Robert Downey Jr.; Holmes in a sexual tension subplot with a woman; Holmes acting in general like a boorish, hedonistic cad; gratuitous generic action sequences; Holmes solving problems through violence with a distinct lack of observation and deduction; floating women in white and other indicators of a supernatural element; oh, and at the end of the preview, Watson punches Holmes. Watson’s not supposed to do that.
In short my mind quickly filed the whole movie under Things to Be Avoided Like the Plague and that would have been the end of it. However, ptolemaeus also saw the trailer, and while she agreed the movie would be bad, she was convinced it would be So Bad Its Good.
Come the 2009 winter holidays, she was so excited about Sherlock Holmes that our mom and I conspired to take her and our two sisters to the opening show Christmas Day. Even I became excited, figuring I would snark all the way through the movie and give it a devastating write-up. On the way to the theater, all we could talk about was how awful the movie was going to be.
We went into the movie and to my complete astonishment, it didn’t suck. What’s more it was actually good. It was great.
From the trailer, I had expected a derivative Hollywood adaptation which throws out practically all the source material except the names of the characters and some of the trappings in favor of a generic sex-and-violence caper.
What I got instead was … well, let’s take it from the top.
The Eponymous Hero
Robert Downey Jr. certainly brings a new interpretation to Holmes, and I feel like there was a certain amount of Hollywood wrongheadedness about his performance.
In A Scandal in Bohemia, Conan Doyle describes Holmes thusly:
All emotions, and that one [love] particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.
Downey’s Holmes, by contrast, is highly emotional. Churlish, excitable, susceptible to petty goading, jealous of Watson’s relationship with Mary, and strongly attracted to Irene Adler, in direct opposition to Conan Doyle’s assertion that “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler.”
Furthermore, while Conan Doyle’s Holmes is always cool, collected, and at least a dozen steps ahead of the audience, Downey’s is constantly behind the curve, and having to catch up. Where Conan Doyle’s Holmes is sophisticated, Downey’s is coarser, grungier, much quicker to get his hands dirty.
What the trailer completely left out was that he’s also analytical, observant, and in fact solves most of his problems through intelligence, creativity and even planning. The violence is certainly played up, but it’s fairly well grounded in the Holmesian canon and does not, in fact, overshadow the logic and deduction.
Holmes’ nigh-clairvoyant ability to analyze people and situations through small and often obscure details and his use of disguises* are prominently displayed, and far from being throw-away features to provide a vague nod in the general direction of the original canon, they are integral to the story. He observes and deducts his way through most of the plot, and the dramatic climax is notably not for his duel with the villain atop Tower Bridge, but his subsequent summation of the case.
*You can spot the first use of a disguise when Irene Adler’s mysterious associate pulls a gun on a nosy stranger—had said stranger truly been an extra, he’d have been shot dead rather than let off with a warning.
Whilst in the theater I remarked that the screenwriters must’ve arrived at this version of Holmes by reading the CliffNotes Doyle and then filled in the rest after an extended House marathon. Now that I think about it though, Downey’s Holmes is more reminiscent of Captain Jack Sparrow; more vulnerable and fallible than Conan Doyle’s version, but always with at least one card up his sleeve—even if it is sometimes mere improvisation.
There’s a part in the trailer where Watson exclaims “Holmes, does your depravity know no bounds?” to which Holmes replies “No.” The trailer insinuated Holmes was coming off a grossly out-of-character night of drink and debauchery, but in context it referred to Holmes paying off a fortuneteller to convince Watson that his marriage to Mary would be a nightmare, which makes somewhat more sense.
Even the romance with Irene Adler is more palatable in context. While Downey’s Holmes is not the woman-hater of the original canon, he’s closer to it than the lecherous skirt-chaser depicted in the trailer. His attraction to Irene and hers to him is clearly grounded in their mutual respect for each others’ professional talents.
A romance budding between criminal and investigator is a well-established dramatic trope, and at times Holmes’ and Irene’s relationship verged on the cliché, but on the whole I think the filmmakers pulled it off rather well.
A Brit might take issue with Downey’s accent, but I confess I quickly learned to stop worrying and just love the performance. I’m also reliably informed that, for those whose orientation swings that way, Downey’s Holmes is pretty hot stuff, which certainly doesn’t hurt.
Contrary to the impression made by the trailer, Rachel McAdams spends the majority of this movie fully clothed. She does employ seduction against Holmes, but it’s clearly only one tool in her bag of tricks, and not even the primary one.* She also comes equipped with a small arsenal of miniature weapons, impressive combat skills, and a flair for improvisation which nearly matches Holmes’ own.
*In fact, a reviewing of the movie trailers makes it clear that the film cut an additional scene of Irene in lingerie and acting seductive, meaning the film’s editor actually toned down the sexual objectification for the theatrical release.
Mind you, I don’t see the Irene Adler of the film defeating Holmes. For all her smarts and all her skill, Irene nearly gets herself killed twice by the villain and has to be saved by Holmes, and spends the bulk of the movie under the thumb of the Man in Shadow. She comports herself well and pulls some neat tricks, but I don’t think she lived up to her reputation. Shame.
Of course, I shouldn’t give her too much grief for pulling a Gwen Stacy Maneuver. Just as the romance side plot for the (male) main character is obligatory for any modern American action film, it is equally mandatory either to kill off the female love interest or to fake same.
Still, Rachel McAdams is a great actor and, for those of us whose orientation swings the other way, very attractive, too. Apropos of nothing, I also noticed halfway through the movie that she has two freckles on her neck which look amusingly like vampire bite marks.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, because I’m sure Jude Law delivered a fine performance, and his Watson was competent, proactive, and funny, but I find I don’t have a whole lot to say about him. For me, Downey’s Holmes, McAdams’ Irene Adler and even Mark Strong as the villainous Lord Blackwood rather stole the show.
Oh, on second thought, I suppose I could point out that Law plays up Watson’s military background, as part of the whole action movie motif (more on that later).
And it turns out the punching-Holmes-in-the-face incident, as well as the scene where Watson angrily lists Holmes’ flaws are both in response to Holmes’ continued meddling in Watson’s love life. It’s not quite the relationship Conan Doyle portrayed, but then, neither were Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The point is that where the trailer had me expecting a highly adversarial relationship between Watson and Holmes of the type Dark Lords would do well to fear, what I got was a strong friendship of great mutual respect occasionally punctuated by open conflict—which to me is entirely in keeping with the Holmesian tradition.
There’s also all the lovely gay subtext (bordering on supratext) between Watson and Holmes. I don’t really have much to say about this, except, I guess, “have fun, guys.”
Mary Morstan also has a role, but only as a plot device to generate (sexual) tension between Holmes and Watson. Hopefully, the sequel will give her a more substantial role.
The main antagonist of this movie is Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong. Blackwood is not a hereditary lord, as we learn midway through the film that he’s the illegitimate son of some bigwig or other who just so happens also to be the leader of a secret society of mystics similar to the Illuminati. You know the drill, clandestine rituals involving knives and goblets, long robes and pentagrams, bones and hair, ominous biblical quotes, rinse and repeat.
Blackwood, is, of course, a practitioner of black magic, and is, of course—though never referred to as such—also Jack the Ripper. The murdered sex workers were a means of gathering power for his real goal, which is, you guessed it: take over the world. Say it with me now:
The movie opens with Holmes and Watson foiling the suicide of Victim #6—clearly under Blackwood’s influence—and Blackwood’s arrest. However, Blackwood is not terribly put out by being jailed, as it apparently allows him to put his real plan in motion. Blackwood is hanged, buried, busts out of his grave, then kills his father and takes over the Fauxminati. With their assistance, he plans to show Guy Fawkes how it’s done and wipe out Parliament—except for his own followers—leaving him in control of the Empire.
Needless to say, our heroes have other ideas. Blackwood’s device is disarmed and Blackwood himself, pursuing Holmes and Irene to the top of the half-constructed Tower Bridge, falls off the bridge with a chain wrapped around his neck.
Not the most memorable movie villain out there, but the relative originality of his plan and the way it unfolds put him—and the plot—well above standard action movie fair. The fact that his ultimate goal is not patently obvious from the first ten minutes speaks volumes for the plot, and Blackwood’s part in it. On the other hand, I gotta knock a few points off for the lazy “empire to last a thousand years” reference.
Blackwood is aided in his duplicitous affairs by Lord Coward of the Home Office, a high-ranking member of the Fauxmenati. From the moment I clapped eyes on him, I thought Coward looked familiar, but a perusal of Hans Matheson’s IMDB page failed to ring any bells, so perhaps I imagined it. This illusion did make Coward a more interesting character for me, and I note that he survived the movie unscathed and apparently a free man. I hope this means we’ll see more of him in the sequel.
Last we have the Man in Shadow, who employs Irene Adler and carries a miniature gun in a spring-loaded holster. At first, when Blackwood talked of greater things afoot than himself and Holmes, I thought perhaps Blackwood was just the lieutenant—“the channel,” as he identifies himself—and the MIS would prove to be the man behind the man.
It soon became clear that Blackwood was indeed the main villain and, more significantly, that he and the MIS were working somewhat at cross-purposes. With that cleared up, pegging the MIS as Professor Moriarty was elementary.
Moriarity’s involvement in the plot is probably one of the most interesting aspects of the entire movie. I daresay the filmmakers never would have gotten away with it if they weren’t writing an established character in an established fictional universe. Apart from controlling Irene Adler, Moriarity’s role is tangential to the main plot and very much behind the scenes. Fortunately, Moriarity’s reputation does the filmmakers’ work for them, allowing them to add an extra layer of significance to the story and culminating in a satisfyingly clever little sequel hook. It was a gutsy move on their part, including Moriarity in the film purely to lay the groundwork for an uncertain sequel, but as far as I’m concerned, it more than paid off.
Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting
This is one of the few parts where the trailer was not entirely misleading. The filmmakers have significantly beefed up the fight scenes in Sherlock Holmes, because the only way an American movie can be a success in the 00s is if it’s an action movie.
While the fight scenes do not exactly say “Sherlock Holmes,” they do not detract from the essential detective story nature of the film, so I’ll forgive them.
Towards the end of the trailer, Holmes is confronted with a Giant Mook wielding a comparably sized hammer. He reaches for a weapon and picks up a perfectly ordinary hammer, which looks puny in comparison. Cue a split-second of “comic” consternation as Holmes contemplates the situation, then throws the hammer, which bounces off his opponent’s chest.
When I first saw this sequence in the theater, cringing in my seat and reflecting that after this, Harry Potter would be a relief, I thought ‘Great, so now on top of everything else he’s freaking Inspector Clouseau?’
Then came the movie and what did I see? Holmes calculating the moves in a fight and identifying weak points on his opponent before the first punch has been thrown. We get treated to a similar sequence a bit later on, when Holmes is in a boxing match played out to the surprisingly apt tune of The Rocky Road to Dublin. Of course, both fights go precisely as predicted.
This is not like anything Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote, but it’s a reasonable extension of the canon; we may imagine this is how Holmes would comport himself in a fight. In his fight with the giant Dredger he displays ingenuity and strong tactical thinking in no small measure. This degenerates by the halfway point, but given the vast amount of truly Holmesian thinking displayed throughout the rest of the movie, I’m prepared to overlook one mindless action sequence.
For reasons which remain unclear, Holmes, Watson and practically everyone else in this movie seem to be practitioners of some strange Western martial arts discipline, which is a little jarring. One wonders why they so often resort to fisticuffs rather than firearms; presumably it’s because they know that with the way they shoot when they do resort to firearms, they’ll get better results by simply whomping on their opponents.
More Things on Heaven and Earth
Among the many disservices the trailer afforded me and the movie was to portray the existence of the supernatural in this film as a done deal. Women levitate off of alters, Lord Blackwood rises from the grave, you better start believing in ghost stories, Mr. Holmes; you’re in one.
When the movie opened with Holmes and Watson foiling Blackwood’s ritual (which pointedly did not feature Victim #6 levitating), ptolemaeus confidently whispered to me that all the supernatural stuff would turn out to be a red herring. I had my doubts for a while, but as with most of her other predictions, this one proved spot-on.
Oh, the last shot of Lord Blackwood (whose final paperwork will no doubt read “Cause of Death: Poetic Justice”), and the ubiquitous crow (there’s always a bloody crow) are a clear tip of the hat to the notion of forces at work beyond our understanding. But it’s vague and not necessarily supernatural at all, whereas the specifics of black magic and ritual and humans harnessing occult forces to do things like levitate young women or boil a man alive or set another man on fire or come back from being hanged* are all debunked in the Summing Up scene. (Actually, the whole levitation thing wasn’t explained, because it never occurred in the movie itself. Make of that what you will.)
*This one likely would’ve been more impressive had Terry Pratchett not pulled a similar trick five years earlier.
I had slightly different worries when Blackwood started talking about “three more deaths” which Holmes must accept he can do nothing about. Fortunately, while Holmes indeed fails prevent the deaths, there’s no angsting about fighting fate or any of that nonsense, no agonizing about whether or not he’ll be able to prevent the prophesied fatalities when we all knew quite well he wouldn’t—in short, no yanking our chains by proffering the illusion that he might actually be able to save even one of them. The Magic Three dropped off the radar completely, only coming back ex post facto, which is probably the right way to handle deaths foretold if you absolutely must have them.
However, once you take the supernatural aspect out, you have to wonder why Blackwood specified Holmes would be unable to prevent the three deaths, but said nothing about the massacre in Parliament (which, of course, he does prevent)—or, for that matter, how Blackwood knew the American ambassador would try to shoot him and where. In hindsight, the “three more deaths” line sounds more like the filmmakers appropriating Blackwood as a mouthpiece to tell the audience what the next hour-and-a-half is going to look like, rather than Blackwood telling Holmes his plans, which seems a rather odd creative decision to me.
Style, Style, Style
This is probably the one section of the review where I don’t disparage the trailer.
The movie’s editors employed many interesting tricks for this movie, such as Holmes thinking out a fight in slow motion, followed by the fight itself in fast motion, or the sound dampening utilized when the slaughterhouse is torn apart by explosions. The use of flashbacks coupled with subtle optical cues to draw the viewers’ attention to a certain detail should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a modern mystery movie/show (Psych, for example), but the filmmakers took this trope and made it their own. As a result, Sherlock Holmes ends up a stylistically unique movie experience
In Conclusion, I Accuse …
If I were to condense this review to one short paragraph it would probably go something like this:
The trailer to Sherlock Holmes sucks royally and totally misrepresents the movie, which is actually very good and appreciably faithful to the Holmesian canon and style. It’s not Conan Doyle—any more than Rathbone and Bruce were—but a worthy adaptation in its own right, and well worth checking out.
Stay tuned for my review of the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which I’ll get around to posting eventually.