Reflections of the Third Eye
2 April 2013
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Topic: S

I didn't get to see Sherlock Holmes until now, but its rather favorable reception upon release had me curious, along with the surprising casting choices. It marks Guy ‘Snatch’ Ritchie's return to A-list movies after a long slump that involved serial career-killer Madonna among other things. Ritchie's direction here is full of self-confidence, although some might feel that the Tarantino school of kinetic action and playful meta-cinema is getting old.

I wanted to like this movie, and for the first 15 minutes or so, I felt that its bold take on the Sherlock Holmes mythology worked well. But then, just like with Prometheus, false notes began to appear here and there, and they seemed to grow louder with each re-occurrence. Casting a very American method actor like Robert Downey in a role whose outward appearance has been defined by the artistocratic features of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett is a daring choice that borders on the bizarre but, again, for a while it seemed to work. Downey has earned a reputation of being a very gifted actor, and even when he's in deep water he remains watchable. But his take on the role seems almost like an understudy variant of his 'Tony Stark' (Iron Man) character. He expresses at least two different simultaneous emotions in every shot, which is useful in psychological dramas or to inject depth into airhead Marvel movies, but is not something you would link with Victorian Britain and its ritualized use of outward control and the stiff upper lip, nor does it conform in any way to the way Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed in the past, least of all in Conan Doyle's stories.

It is billed as a Sherlock Holmes movie, and makes extensive use of details from the Holmes myth, but neither the protagonist nor the basic plot bear much resemblance to the stories that made Holmes world famous. To begin with, there should be a distinct crime and an associated mystery, which form the riddle for Holmes' logic to disentangle. Everything else should be secondary to the carefully constructed problem which the great detective is to solve with his deductive reasoning. This movie isnt't like that; it's more like a Jason Bourne film set in 1890 London. Some of this is clearly on the director's wishes, but too much of the most recognizable elements of Holmes are sacrificed. The jarring feeling is amplified by a narrative that confuses intelligence with arcane knowledge, as if Holmes was in line for a sequel to The Da Vinci Code. Deductive logic, the type of intelligence championed by Doyle and incarnated in Holmes, is hardly ever put on display in the film. The type of audience participation that comes with classic murder puzzles, where the reader/viewer can try to match his wits with the detective is made near-impossible by the confused, uncomprehending way Ritchie & co deals with Holmes’ methods of logic and objectivity.

Instead of delighting in the man’s brain power, we are treated to a number of overlong fistfights and slow-motion explosions that seem targetted at a bonehead audience who liked Ritchie’s Brit gangster flicks for the wrong reasons, and have never heard of Conan Doyle. At its worst, Sherlock Holmes feels as if someone who owned the movie rights to the character name used it to cash in by making a movie that drew on several recent successes and whose hero just happens to be named Sherlock Holmes. It is so removed from the Holmes universe that the hero and film could have claimed to be 100% original and named something else, 'Reginald Clark, Victorian Superhero' or whatever, but of course many more people will go to see a 'Sherlock Holmes' movie.

I wasn't particularly impressed with the script; the plot was overwraught and its fake magic too similar to recent successes The Prestige and The Illusionist. It is historically accurate to depict magick activity within English society during the fin de siecle era; the problem is that this theme of magick rarely or maybe even never entered Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon. So even in its subject matter, the movie manages to distance itself from the canonical source. The classic Holmes stories are often eerie and ghostly, but this is due to the seemingly inexplicable mystery that Holmes is to solve, combined with a clever use of gothic or exotic details. 'The Sign Of Four' is masterful in this respect, and the fine TV series with Jeremy Brett captured this eerie suspense well. This movie, however, is not about creepy atmospheres and spooky details; it's loud and brash whereever it goes. For someone like me, who grew up with Doyle's stories, this film is more an insult than anything else; Downey's drastic reinterpretation of the role is one thing, but the scripts' attempts to replace deductive intelligence with obscure knowledge lacks all justification.

On the upside, Jude Law seems comfortable with his rather young Dr Watson, and he goes some way to keep the movie on an identifiable stylistic track. Rachel MacAdam is pretty and likable, but hardly ideally cast for an international jewel thief, with her high school girl demeanor. Mark Strong is good as the main villain, and the minor roles are generally well executed. Except for some mediocre CGI, Victorian London is convincingly rebuilt and the movie makes excellent use of both muddy streets and landmarks new (London Bridge is shown under construction) and old. Similarly the costume work is impressive, offering lots of variation in fabric, patterns and styles, despite the supposed uniform dress codes of the era. The clothes look used and worn, for an additional nice detail. The only dubious note is a bizarre Gary Numan-like jacket worn by 'Dr Watson' in a restaurant scene.

This movie clearly works better for those unfamiliar with the classic Sherlock Holmes universe, which it has little in common with. But the plot is too clichéd and comic book-like to turn this into a period action story that truly works, and the viewer is left with a movie that has all its best elements in the periphery, while its core is insufficiently thought-out and unsteadily built. I'm not sure why Sherlock Holmes was so enthusiastically received, but I suspect it rode on the trend of comic superhero movies, an angle which Robert Downey's presence and performance amplifies. 6/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:17 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:34 AM MEST

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