Wednesday, August 24, 2016

"Sherlock Holmes": review

A week or so ago, I watched both 2009's "Sherlock Holmes" and 2011's "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," both directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey, Jr., as Holmes, as well as Jude Law as Holmes's faithful aide, Dr. John Watson. The first movie pits Holmes against a friendly rival and maybe-lover, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams); it also pits Holmes against the snaggle-toothed Lord Henry Blackwood (Mark Strong), an apparent practitioner of the black arts who seemingly comes back to life after having been executed and pronounced dead by Dr. Watson himself. The second movie finds Holmes going head-to-head with his arch-nemesis from the Conan Doyle* novels: none other than Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, who took to the role with an almost vampiric delight). Readers of the Holmes stories will know that Holmes and Moriarty came to physical blows at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland; Conan Doyle had intended to kill Holmes off at that point, but the public outcry was such that he brought Holmes back for further adventures. Guy Ritchie set out to tell some old stories in a new way; rather than delve into the respective mysteries laid out in these two movies, I'd rather concentrate on two aesthetic questions:

(1) Did I like what Guy Ritchie had done with the Holmes character?
(2) How did Ritchie's treatment diverge from, and compare with, the books'?

This might cause a walkout among my blog's five readers, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Ritchie's updated take on Sherlock Holmes. The wacky English director responsible for the stylistically aggressive** 2000 movie "Snatch" brought an updated, amped-up, sped-up, light-hearted sensibility to Conan Doyle's somewhat staid approach to describing Holmes. Creating a modernized Holmes is no mean feat, especially these days, when reboots of Holmes abound in the form of Dr. House, the TV series "Elementary," or even the rebooted "Sherlock" starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Ritchie succeeds at creating a Holmes who is at once relatable and yet more or less his old 1890s-era self.

Ritchie was one of the first to transfer the use of music-video techniques to the big screen. Like Zack Snyder, Ritchie varies the action from normal speed to super slo-mo, and he deftly shifts between bright overexposure and dark shadow. When Holmes hits someone's face with a jab, the punch takes an eternity to land and results in rippling facial muscles, balletically flying droplets of sweat and saliva, and basso groaning. Ritchie also includes plenty of humor to keep us awake; both movies feature funny, rapidfire repartee between Holmes and Watson (also rebooted to be more of an equal with Holmes, but more on that in a bit). Downey, who is no stranger to doing English, Australian, and other accents, handles British pronunciation and intonation capably, if not perfectly. The moments when he has to speak French don't come off quite as well; Downey is obviously much less comfortable in that language, mushing his vowels and consonants. The role calls for someone who is as much a physical actor as a dramatic one, though, and Downey fits the bill. In terms of visuals, pacing, tone, and casting, Ritchie's films are a success. I'd chalk both Holmes movies up as a guilty pleasure: I probably shouldn't like them (Conan Doyle purists wouldn't), but I do.

In terms of how far Ritchie's vision of Holmes diverged from Holmes's portrayal in the books and short stories, I'd say that Ritchie remained remarkably faithful to the literature in some ways while taking great liberties in others. As briefly mentioned above, one of the major changes was how Holmes and Watson relate to each other. If you've read the short stories and the two or three novels that Conan Doyle wrote, then you know that Watson most often finds himself in the role of chronicler, but that Holmes is generally dissatisfied with the way Watson depicts him. Holmes, who is intellectually arrogant and socially retarded, bluntly claims that Watson routinely misses the essential points of the cases that Holmes solves. Holmes further complains that Watson tends to exaggerate and embellish—a complaint that Watson himself often chafes at because he is at pains to create as faithful a recounting as possible. Overall, in the literature, Watson comes across as level-headed and generally submissive, so it's interesting to see how, in Ritchie's version, Watson is more of an equal partner in Holmes's adventures than he is in the books—someone unwilling to take Holmes's flak, and who can go toe-to-toe with Holmes verbally, sometimes even acquiring the rhetorical high ground.

Ritchie's treatment of the cases themselves is actually fairly close to the spirit of the books. Conan Doyle only rarely ever gave us true technical insights into how Holmes solved his cases: unlike Agatha Christie's excellent stories, in which hints are dropped along the way so that readers have a chance to solve the problems themselves, Conan Doyle preferred a more deus ex machina style in which Holmes's methodology remains obscure but everything comes together at the end, when Holmes explains most of his insights in one big speech. (One major exception to this is "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual," in which we see Holmes using logic, and even trigonometry, to solve a case. This story stands out for the inside look it gives us into Holmes's approach.***) High above the Thames, on the still-under-construction Tower Bridge, Holmes gives a big, explanatory speech to Lord Blackwood at the end of the first movie—complete with flashbacks to remind the viewer—and the effect is very Conan Doyle-ish.

The movies also play up certain aspects of Holmes's life that don't get much play in the books, while also downplaying others. First and foremost is Holmes's fighting ability: in the stories, Holmes mentions his familiarity with a martial art called baritsu, which is likely a bastardization of an actual integrated martial art of the era called bartitsu, which involved Japanese-style hand strikes, below-the-waist foot strikes, grappling moves, and the use of certain gentlemanly objects, like canes, as weapons for self-defense. As it turns out, when the fight choreography was designed for the movie, it was modeled around a martial art that Robert Downey, Jr. actually practices: wing chun, which is the same art that Bruce Lee studied before Lee went on to invent jeet kune do. The version of wing chun that we see on the screen is rather slappy in nature (in Japanese, these quick, distracting strikes are called atemi, and they are usually the lead-in to heavier, more damaging strikes), but is laced with legitimate kung fu moves. Several scenes show Holmes mentally anticipating the sequence of blows and blocks he'll need to execute in order to bring his opponent down; fight-choreography junkie that I am, I liked this aspect of the films. I don't think Ritchie specifically plays up Holmes's cocaine addiction (in the books, Holmes takes cocaine intravenously, as a liquid), but Holmes is shown consuming fluids not meant for consumption, including one that Watson claims is for eye surgery. Meanwhile, Holmes's obnoxious habit of playing the violin at all hours is reduced, in the films, to his merely plucking at the instrument.

A word about some other characters: we get an eyeful of Irene Adler in the first movie, and a healthy dose of Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock's eccentric-genius older brother, ably played by Stephen Fry, who is a welcome sight, except when naked). Mycroft doesn't get the characterization he deserves: in the books, he's a genius-level detective who prefers to solve his cases in an armchair way; unlike his younger brother Sherlock, he has no taste for adventure. The filmic Adler is more like the Adler of the books: we know she's clever because Conan Doyle asserts this, but we never really learn how she has managed to outsmart Sherlock Holmes. Professor Moriarty is just as opaque on film as he is on the page; in my opinion, after having heard so much about Moriarty the arch-nemesis over the years, I had expected Conan Doyle to give us a villain fleshed out in every detail, but in fact he's one of the most disappointingly vague baddies I've ever encountered. In the books, what we learn of Moriarty comes to us through Holmes, who very generally describes Moriarty's reputation and some of his accomplishments, which include the building of an enormous and interconnected spider's web of crime that infiltrates London and much more. In the second movie, Moriarty is shown to be a mean fellow who doesn't flinch from Jack Bauer-style torture, but as in the books, we're given only the merest glimpse of his actual genius. I'm not sure I should blame Guy Ritchie, here, for not giving us more with Moriarty, but I do somewhat blame him: this was one area in which Conan Doyle could have, and should have, been improved upon.

So, yes: I enjoyed both films. Purists will prefer the old-school Holmes with his ridiculous magnifying glass, his cloak, and his double-billed deerstalker cap—the tropes by which the classic Sherlock is known, even to people who have never read the stories. I watched Guy Ritchie's two films and didn't miss the old-school Holmes at all. Your mileage may vary.

*It's common for many writers to refer to Arthur Conan Doyle as either "Doyle" or "Conan Doyle." Wikipedia has an interesting entry on how legitimate it is to use "Conan Doyle" since, technically, "Conan" was a middle name and not part of a hyphenated surname (e.g., "Conan-Doyle"). Common usage—and the man's own idiosyncratic usage—make "Conan Doyle" permissible, and whenever I type the man's name, that's what seems to roll out most easily for me. You're free to say and write "Doyle," though, if that pleases you.

**I borrow this phrase from another reviewer who was referring to Baz Luhrmann's frenetically paced and visually kaleidoscopic "Moulin Rouge."

***My review of Conan Doyle's books and short stories is here. Amusingly, I noted, upon rereading, that in that review, I tended to write "Doyle" and not "Conan Doyle." I guess what rolls out most easily can change over time.


Bratfink said...

FWIW (since I am have not read all that many of Doyle's stories) I enjoyed Basil Rathbone as Sherlock when I was a kid, and I had no problem liking Downey's portrayals and the 'new' movies.

The Maximum Leader said...

Am I one of the 5 readers who might have been disappointed by this post? The world wonders...

Actually, I liked the first Sherlock Holmes film. The second one I found tedious and couldn't get into. I was, at first, adamant about these films not being "real" Sherlock Holmes stories. At some level I do want to be a purist and just stick to the character that Doyle (Conan Doyle?) created. But as time has passed I've started to view Holmes as more of an archetype than a single character. Sure, the Holmes of the books (and of Jeremy Brett's fabulous TV series) is the first and greatest. But, I find that all of the TV and film adaptations, retellings, and updates have at least something to commend them. I am particularly fond of the Cumberbatch's version.

I think a force for moving me to my current view of Sherlock Holmes has been non-Doyle (non-Conan Doyle?) books that I've read in the past 5-10 years. I didn't realize how many mystery writers (and just writers) have written Holmes stories. I've read some (perhaps 4, I may have started about 10 - but couldn't finish them). They vary in quality greatly. The ones that work don't mimic the original stories, but do capture that Platonic form of Holmesness. I suppose as long as I can glom onto the Form of Holmesness in something I can enjoy it.

Did you ever see "Mr. Holmes" with Ian McKellan? I do like that film a lot.

Kevin Kim said...


I think ol' Uncle Basil is a classic, and for a certain demographic, he's probably the actor who is most and best associated with the character of Holmes. Wild-haired, kung fu Downey, though, does have his redeeming traits.


I reviewed "Mr. Holmes" here. I liked the movie a lot.

The only non-Doyle Holmes story I've read was by Stephen King. It can be found in one of King's many short-story collections; if I recall correctly, it's Watson who solves this case, not Holmes, and the solution involves a painting done so cleverly that it creates the optical illusion of a mirror reflection, such that anyone hiding behind the painting is effectively invisible.

I'll take your word for it when you say that the non-Doyle stories vary widely in quality. Should I ever venture into that part of the literary forest, I'll be sure to proceed with caution.

Speaking of caution: after reading several shitty reviews in a row of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I've decided not to buy it. Reader consensus is that the book (a play, really) reads like bad fan fiction. It was only co-written by Rowling, so I guess that explains the apparent lapse in quality.

Charles said...

I'm definitely not a purist. As we discussed, I've read the ACD stories as well, and I enjoyed them, but I like a good SH reboot if it's done well. I liked the Ritchie films as well (although I prefer the first), and I don't even consider it a guilty pleasure--the films don't pretend to be anything other than what they are.

I've caught a few episodes of "Elementary" over the years and find myself very annoyed by it. Can't really put my finger on why, but to be honest I haven't seen enough to really form a proper opinion.

The version I really want to see at the moment is Sir Ian McKellen's "Mr. Holmes." Can't remember if we talked about that.

A minor note: The BBC version is just "Sherlock" (no "Holmes" on the end).

Kevin Kim said...


Corrected! Thanks.

We did very briefly discuss—or at least mention—"Mr. Holmes" over gelato.

TheBigHenry said...


I enjoyed this review. I have read some of the Conan Doyle books. These were among the first books I read as a kid, along with the D'Artagnan Romances of Dumas, père.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, Henry. I think I read Dumas later than you did—around middle school, and it was on my own (i.e., not assigned reading): The Count of Monte Cristo.

TheBigHenry said...

Speaking of Holmes reboots, I am currently reading Colin Dexter's "Inspector Morse" novels, which had been produced into a popular TV series. Inspector Morse's "Holmes-type" character is assisted by Sargeant Lewis's "Watson-like" character. These British detective novels are a fun read.