Review: Sherlock Holmes

sherlock holmes one sheetI’ve been a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detail-oriented detective Sherlock Holmes for as long as I can remember. As a young child I devoured the stories and as recently as last week was watching a classic 1944 Holmes movie, The Scarlet Claw, starring Basil Rathbone as the eponymous detective and Nigel Bruce as his bumbling medical sidekick John Watson. I also greatly enjoyed the BBC series of Holmes stories that starred Jeremy Brett as the detective and David Burke as Dr. Watson.

The Holmes canon is extraordinarily rich and directors as talented as Billy Wilder and Barry Levinson have tackled it with varying levels of success. There are more than 200 Holmes films and TV shows spanning more than a century (the first Holmes film was the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, released in 1905). It’s also quite rich in detail, as any Holmsian will tell you, including when and how Holmes met and interacted with his one true love, Irene Adler. 
And so it was quite a challenge for director Guy Ritchie to reinvent Sherlock Holmes on the big screen, transforming him from the fastidious Jeremy Brett and overbearing Basil Rathbone to the scroungy, intense Robert Downey Jr. who plays Holmes as a sarcastic ruffian who earns supplemental income as a warehouse pugilist, and Jude Law as a sophisticated and alarmingly violent Watson.
The result is a highly entertaining, visually stunning movie that doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders and reduces one of the best and most memorable fictional detectives in history to just another member of CSI:Victorian London or one of the Usual Suspects or any number of similar gritty, tough, unorthodox detectives.

The story is engaging enough, revolving around the malevolent Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) up to nefarious deeds leading to his taking over the government of England (in a manner reminiscent of Guy Fawkes) and then restoring English dominance over America. A shadowy – and satisfying – presence in the background is archenemy Professor Moriarty. 

The film opening with a horse-drawn paddywagon galloping madly through the streets of a dirty, sepia London in a scene reminiscent of the opening of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Cut to Holmes and Watson ignoring Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade (satisfyingly played as a bit of a simpleton by Eddie Marsan) and sneaking into a ritual during which Blackwood and his accomplices are poised to sacrifice a white-garbed woman on a stone altar. They rescue her in the nick of time and Blackwood is sentenced to hang but, well, it doesn’t quite turn out as expected…
The dialog is amusing and the repartee between Holmes and Watson is satisfying and entertaining throughout (at one point in the heat of a fight Watson asks “Holmes, did you remember your revolver?” to which Holmes responds “I thought I forgot something!”) but also contributed towards the sense of this as just another buddy detective film: In the stories, Watson is primarily Holmes’ chronicler, his “Boswell”, rather than an action figure with flying fists.

sherlock holmes publicity still

Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and James Watson (Jude Law) ready for action

Doyle introduces Irene Adler in the Holmes stories thusly: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler, however.”  Ritchie decided that this more intellectual love doesn’t work in a modern action drama, so when Adler (Rachel McAdams) shows up unexpectedly, Holmes has to hide her portrait photo and it’s clear that he is indeed in love with her.  At one point it’s also suggested that the relationship is consummated, even if as part of Adler’s evil plot against Holmes.
The exterior shots of Victorian London, the climactic fight between Blackwood, Holmes and Adler on the half-built Tower Bridge, and the many complex interior shots are beautifully done. The fight scene at the shipyard is a standout in terms of seamless integration of CG backgrounds and details. Overall, the cinematography by Philippe Rousselot is stunning and worth the ticket price alone. Then again, the unrelieved sepia color palette is exhausting and left me yearning for some splash of color from a costume, a painting on the wall, or anything. Even the flower bouquet in a later hospital scene were white lilies, and the closing titles remained that same sepia palette.
If Ritchie and Downey Jr. would have been working with any other fictional detective, or would have invented a new Victorian tough guy detective, it would have doubtless been easier and I certainly wouldn’t be quoting stories from over 100 years ago to point out flaws in the update to the storyline, but they picked Sherlock Holmes and that’s the core problem with the film. 
Sherlock Holmes is a fun action detective movie based loosely on the great fictional detective, but ultimately it’s forgettable, yet another stylish action movie by a cast we’ve seen in these roles before, in a setting and era that’s a mainstay of modern cinema.  Ritchie doesn’t bring much to the Holmes canon and Robert Downey Jr. often seems to be reprising his role as Tony Stark in Iron Man. See it in the theater for the cinematography and flawless production, but don’t expect it to be a reinvention of Mr. Holmes because it’s not.

5 comments on “Review: Sherlock Holmes

  1. Christian, there are two main Sherlock Holmes that I think helped define him in the popular culture: Basil Rathbone and, more recently, Jeremy Brett. For the former, his best is probably “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) and for the latter, it was a (terrific) BBC series, so perhaps Netflix will have it? Not sure which is the best episode, but I will give a shout out to “A Scandal in Bohemia” which is the story that introduces Irene Adler in the storyline…

    Maybe we need to have a Sherlock Holmes festival ??

  2. If you are in the Boulder area, Video Station has the BBC series. I am in possession of the 2nd disk and most of the others were checked out when I was there.

  3. This film was a huge disappointment! Simply put, Guy Ritchie’s latest directorial attempt is the typical Hollywood version of Sherlock Holmes. I just re-watched the entire collection of episodes produced by Granada, and they are outstanding compared to the current movie. PS. Jeremy Brett is the ultimate Holmes. The man was an amazing actor!

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