No, that’s not Robert Downey Jr. lounging in the sitting room of 221b Baker St., it’s me (still in a sling from my rotator cuff surgery) in the famous room’s recreation at the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London.
Of course, I look as much like the literary Holmes as Downey Jr. does… I mean, if director Guy Ritchie can cast a 5’7″ guy with a button nose and weak chin as Holmes, why not a 6′ 235 pound weightlifter cartoonist??
But enough of the snarky complaining. Being an avid Holmes fan and Sherlockian, I had every reason to dislike this film and Ritchie’s very loose interpretation of Holmes, which I felt was focusing far too much on the relatively small aspect of Holmes physical prowess.
However I left the theater having enjoyed the movie thoroughly.
I forgot that anytime something is transferred from the written page to the movie screen, something has to give. Film is such a different medium than writing that invariably the film maker must make decisions that deviate from the books in order to make a better movie… especially if that movie is meant to entertain a wide audience and not cater just to the hardcore fans of the original source material. Peter Jackson‘s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is a perfect example. Jackson captured the essentials of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s fantasy masterpiece, yet changed many key aspects of the plot and some characters to make better movies of the subject. He managed to satisfy most rabid Tolkien fans and the rest of the world as well. I think Ritchie pulls off the same feat.
Ritchie obviously took a page from Jackson’s “Rings” formula to help appeal to the many Holmes fans out there. Like Jackson, he manages to capture the essence of Holmes despite the many departures from the source material. Ritchie’s “action hero” focus and the casting of an actor who in no way resembles Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary character is offset by the use of many direct lines straight from the original stories (which by the way singled out all the Sherlockians in the audience, as we were the only ones to show delight at those moments), several references to places and events from the books and more importantly other key aspects of the main characters all specifically aimed to please the Holmes crowd.
Ritchie’s Holmes is an Indiana Jones-like adventurer who is as apt to dive out a third story window into the Thames and take on several thugs at once as get down and crawl about with a magnifying lens looking at minute scratches in the floor boards. Ritchie chose to exaggerate the physical nature of Holmes, who in the Conan Doyle stories was an expert boxer, swordsman, martial artist and singlestick player but who rarely used (or cared to use) those skills. Ritchie also chose to depart from the “gentlemanly” nature of the original character and focus on his more slovenly moments and his use of recreational drugs. In this film Holmes’ Victorian gentlemanly persona is a thin veneer over an eccentric genius and man of action. The key to the film’s successful depiction of Holmes is in the character’s other attributes and in his interaction with Watson.
Here also is Holmes with the brilliant mind, detached in some aspects from the real world, analyzing and deducing at lighting pace in ways that shock those about him. It was particularly clever of Ritchie to combine Holmes’ powers of minute observation with his moments of action, as shown in two fighting scenes where he mentally choreographs the entire fight, how he intends to disable his opponent, what observations he’s basing his strategy on and the effects of each blow in a suspended time flash-forward before he does exactly as he has envisioned in real time. That is a brilliant piece of movie magic that combines the more cerebral Holmes of the books with the film’s apparent brawler, making the physicality of the fights second to his scientific examination and the resulting choreography the main point of the exercise. It’s a nod to Holmes still remaining the brain first and the brawn second as Doyle wrote him. Holmes also does many of the seemingly oddball things he would do in the books to get clues… smelling and licking objects, jumping about and examining things that do not seem related to the events at hand.
The best part of the treatment of Holmes is his interaction with Watson. So many of the Holmes films and treatments over the years have depicted Watson as a buffoon and a comic foil, when anyone who has read the canon (as the original 56 short stories and four novels are known) knows Watson was a true partner, trusted friend and a very smart man in his own right. Jude Law‘s Watson is another man of action, but in this case it’s more accurate as in the books Watson was a former soldier and marksman, often acting as Holmes’ “heavy” and was always along whenever physicality was thought to be called for. There was often a lot of bickering and sniping between the two in the canon, Watson continually becoming fed up with his friend’s egotism and impatience with lesser minds, and Holmes often chiding Watson for is lack of observation and incorrect deductions. If anything, this film’s Watson is given more brains and made a more equal partner than the canon ever credited him for. Forget about the rumors of homosexual overtones… there’s about as much of that as there is with Ernie and Bert in Sesame Street. There is a definite bromance here but clearly Ritchie is not going down the homoerotic road.
Downey Jr. manages to make us forget he’s a short guy with a weak chin. He captures Holmes’ barely contained ego and his almost unconscious dismissal of the lesser minds about him as he goes about his business. The Conan Doyle Holmes had a very dry and sarcastic sense of humor that fits Downey perfectly… in fact I can see what Ritchie saw in the actor to cast him as the Great Detective. Downey seems to give off the feeling that he is smarter, cooler and more sophisticated than everyone around him in a condescending sort of way without being too overtly insulting… exactly as Holmes was often depicted in the canon. Once you learn to ignore the fact that he’s shorter than Watson you can believe him to be a convincing Holmes.
The plot? Sadly it’s a bit convoluted and very much plays second fiddle (forgive the pun, Watson) to the characterizations of the central characters. The main villain, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), returns from the grave following his hanging after being caught by Holmes for a series of ritualistic murders. He embarks on some nefarious and confusing scheme to somehow take over the country, although his new murders and actions seem not ritualistic but revenge motivated. Side stories involving Watson’s impending marriage and his vacating the Baker Street rooms he shared with Holmes, the appearance and involvement of a Holmes’ love interest, a clever criminal named Irene Adler and her employer, the mysterious Professor Moriarty, don’t seem to entirely fit. Adler and Moriarty particularly seemed shoehorned in… like they were characters that needed screen time to establish themselves for a sequel than they were really essential to the storyline… although Rachel McAdams as Adler has some very fun moments with Holmes.
The plot aside this is an enjoyable romp through a very believable Victorian London. We Sherlockians must forgive Ritchie for his changes to the canon’s storylines… like when he has Holmes meeting waton’s fiance Mary Morstan for the first time in a restaurant when they met in the adventure “The Sign of the Four” in the books, or how Irene Adler was not a criminal, a real love interest for Holmes nor even a recurring character after the story “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Ritchie pays us back with many hat tips to the canon and other beloved Holmes adaptations… one particular camera shot during the establishment of the Baker Street area was an obvious homage to the Granada Television Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett, which is much loved by Sherlockians. After all Conan Doyle himself was not above changing the continuity to suit his purposes. Watson’s original war wound was described as a bullet to his shoulder in “A Study in Scarlet”, but later was moved to his leg, and Holmes began his career very much in pursuit of financial security and jealous of the credit for his efforts going to the police but later became more magnanimous and did his work for “the sake of his art” rather than for fame of fortune.
So, if you are a Holmes fan as I am, do not be put off by the much-publicized departures from the ‘traditional’ depiction of the character. Suspend your disbelief and go enjoy the movie for what it is… another enjoyable interpretation of one of the greatest fictional characters ever created.
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