Precious Bodily Fluids

Sherlock Holmes

They’re saying the new Sherlock Holmes is no good because Guy Ritchie’s turned him into an action star. Knowing this going into it, it’s quite easy to brush off such claims and the dubious axioms on which they precariously rest. It takes very little education about Sherlock Holmes lore to learn that there has hardly been an adaptation of the famous Arthur Conan Doyle detective that hasn’t run somewhat against the literary knight’s original conception of him. So, pshaw to the naysayers, right off. On another point, if anyone thought that Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of such a character would be anything other than non-Doyle, s/he wasn’t doing the proper homework. Haven’t yet seen Ritchie’s Revolver or RocknRolla (though they’re both here on the shelf), but Lock Stock and Snatch are enough to give an idea of what Ritchie’s shtick probably is. We should no more have expected Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman to be “faithful.” It wasn’t, and everyone (except Jack Nicholson and various academics) loved Nolan for it. Incidentally, Isn’t Ritchie basically the British Christopher Nolan? They both got started doing fairly flashy “indie” films that were bound to get enough attention for larger funding for subsequent projects (which they did), and now each of them seems to have taken under his belt a popular franchise.

As for the action component, Holmes is here presented as an intellectual fighter, one who knows how to defeat one’s enemies physically through mentally outwitting them and knowing in advance what moves they will make. This is spelled out pretty overtly, using some super-slow-mo sequences in which the audience previews what will occur in Holmes’ mind’s eye before we get to see the real event occur. It always happens exactly the way Holmes plans for it to happen; as enjoyable as these sequences were, one wonders if they aren’t a little too overt – will they offer anything new on repeat viewings?

Speaking of trans-Atlantic correlations, is Robert Downey, Jr. to Sherlock Holmes what Hugh Laurie is to Greg House? Each actor crossed the pond to play an genius at the top of his game who is socially and hygienically near the bottom in a screen production. The show House, M.D. might be superior to this film, however, regarding the human character of the protagonist. While House is consistently shown to be master of his domain, he is also seriously disturbed, and his problems just as consistently get in the way of him smoothly carrying out what he does best. In the case of Holmes, however, his rough-around-the-edges demeanor is more comical than anything else. Downey’s performance is captivating and entertaining, but little if any humanity is shown. The audience is encouraged to swoon over Holmes’ genius rather than relate to what lies beneath it. Is this a flaw? Not necessarily. Having only listened to one of the Doyle stories on audiobook, it would seem that Holmes’ humanity was never the intention of the stories, and Ritchie doesn’t particularly imply that it was his intention. However, the inclusion of Holmes’ lost love, his deep need for companionship (Watson), and a more supernatural element than his scientific mind is accustomed to pondering combine to create at least the opportunity for a more multifaceted character, to say nothing of the nature of cinema.

Was told prior to watching the film that ink has already been spilt over the homoerotic undertones here between Holmes and Watson. Now having seen it, duh; less “undertones,” more “overtones.” The film makes no secret of these moments, really joking about them a lot more than implying any serious substance to them. It seems unlikely that any study would take time to examine this component of the film, since the film quickly acknowledges it (almost in order to get it out of the way) and doesn’t undergird it with much complexity. Holmes and Watson can’t get enough of each other, but they still want their women in a real way.

More interesting than that is the scientific-spiritual, or natural-supernatural aspect. Above Holmes as an action star jumping out of windows, this feature appeared more troublesome at the outset. It seemed like the equivalent of Hollywood taking the Mission:Impossible TV show in its first movie and killing off the entire crew except for Ethan Hunt. (There is another film adaptation that presently escapes me in which the entire spirit of the source material is compromised for the purpose of creating an interesting narrative.) Ritchie certainly implied this in the marketing for Sherlock Holmes, and most of the film implies that this is what’s going on; there is something otherwordly afoot in the investigation, something that is beyond Holmes’ capacity to ascertain. The films The Prestige (by Nolan, again) and The Illusionist both revolved around magic and magicians, and both to varying degrees copped out by giving scientific explanations for their apparently supernatural content. (The Prestige did this to a much lesser degree than The Illusionist.) In Sherlock Holmes, however, the scientific explanations that finally are offered for all the hocus pocus are not “cop-outs” but quite the opposite, finally and faithfully remaining true to the character of Holmes. If he were to have fought off the resurrected demon-man in a brawl using trickery from an ancient book, this would not have been Holmes, and the audience would have known that the scientific Holmes would not have been the best suited for the job. The implication of Holmes as executioner, however, does seem odd and unfaithful. The cinematography attempts to negotiate the film’s last death as out of Holmes’ hands, but one can’t quite get over his calm as the villain meets his end while Holmes unfolds exactly how it all went down.

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This entry was published on January 11, 2010 at 11:48 am. It’s filed under 2000s Cinema, American film, British Film and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

6 thoughts on “Sherlock Holmes

  1. I haven’t yet seen this, but if your mini-review is even half-accurate, I’m excited to see a Holmes who’s as icily inhuman as Doyle has hinted throughout the stories. Despite the scientific detail, the Holmes stories can hardly extract themselves from the rampant spiritualism of the age, and Holmes extreme eccentricity has always led me to imagine him as a much more distant Fox Mulder. Let’s not forget Doyle’s fascination with fairies and the supernatural.

    I’m a bit sad to hear that the Holmes-Watson relationship is played for comedy and presents Holmes as “needing” human contact. I suppose I always read their relationship as one of… anthropological interest on Watson’s part and a sort of bemused tutelage on Holmes’. I won’t say, though, that Watson didn’t seem to serve also as a sort of touchstone for Holmes; after a night of opium-infused flights of fancy, the intellectual giant must certainly have desired the sort of “safe harbor” Watson’s faithful friendship offered.

    Holmes’ role as executioner does seem out of character at first glance, although taken in context with his egotism and borderline sociopathic behavior, it’s not entirely inconceivable.

    The one thing I had hoped, based on the previews, was for a sort of steampunk artistic direction. This would have been a breath of fresh air in the same way Nolan’s reactive-armored-urban-tank batmobile was. That dashed hope aside, I can’t wait to see Downey bring his quirky style to a role that has been in serious need of a more eccentric actor since Jeremy Brett.

  2. I felt this film spent too much time setting up the sequel than it did focusing on the film at hand, it’s almost as if they wanted to hurry up and get this over with so they could make the film they really wanted to.

    By the way I’ve named you as one of my seven kreativ bloggers. You can check it out here, and your encouraged to spread the love! http://www.commonsensemoviereviews.com/2010/01/kreativ-bloggers.html

  3. AS: Clearly you have more knowledge of Doyle’s stories than I do. I could only speculate based on representations of the original thing and dipping my toe into the sea of Holmes through that audiobook. I’m not sure how “icily inhuman” Downey’s Holmes is in comparison with the books, but relative to most superhero film protagonists (which is what he is here), I guess he’s pretty icy and pretty inhuman. The story I listened to had less to do with spiritualism and more to do with the inevitable tragedy that occurs from having bastard children. My better half, who has read more of the stories, tells me this is a common element, and it’s definitely present in the film. Certainly you’re right about the film (and stories) appropriately reflecting the spiritualism of the age. As eager as I am to read more Holmes stuff, I was glad going into the film not to have too many preconceived notions. It’s equal parts asset and handicap to be well-versed in source material (and not to be, for that matter). That being the case, I guess my mini-review could only be “half-accurate” at best!

    TAMVP2001: That’s interesting. I didn’t get that impression at all here. The Moriarty element was pretty similar to the Joker element in Batman Begins, setting the stage for something more to come, but the film hardly dwelt on it until one of the last scenes. And thanks for the shout-out. It’s the first time anyone implied that I’m kreativ.

  4. I’ve been following and enjoying your blog for a while now, so I hate for this to be my first comment but I’m afraid I can’t avoid making the crack: Christopher Nolan is the British Christopher Nolan.

  5. Well whaddayaknow? I guess you’re right, certainly in terms of Nolan’s ethnicity. Looking at his films, though, it is a little hard to tell, since each of them (with the exception of his first, The Following) was a U.S. production. (Nolan also seems to reside in L.A. now.) In Ritchie’s case, Sherlock Holmes is the first film he’s done with any U.S. production, and the Brits still co-produced. So I definitely stand corrected, but at least in terms of the films themselves (production, financing, cast, crew, etc.), I think the point is still somewhat valid. Although, as I look back on the original comment, I see how incidental and pointless it was…

  6. Pingback: Ripped Nylon » Inspiration: The Men of Sherlock Holmes

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