I’ve read a few reviews and criticism of the new Sherlock Holmes movie, to get going on this review. It’s polarized, basically between people who wanted to see him in a deerstalker (the funny cap), and those who were glad they didn’t.
I’d count myself in the second group… I’ve got a fair amount of familiarity with the original Holmes stories, and I was glad to see something other than the typical Sherlock cliché. What we see as the ‘traditional’ Holmes, with the cap, jacket and pipe, was an image created more out of the movies and illustrations that followed the stories, than the stories themselves. The funny cap is less important than showing the almost unbalanced compulsion that drives this character.
Which this movie did, as did Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as performers, is both have fun with the possibilities of these characters, as well as show the tensions. Sherlock as a OCD genius who needs a case to work on for his own sanity. Watson is Sherlock’s closest friend, but is also someone addicted to the excitement of Sherlock’s cases.
As exciting as Downey’s portrayal of Sherlock was, Law’s turn as Watson held the story together. As the story starts, he is beginning to build a more normal life, which we can understand. But his desire to follow the case matches our own. Watson is normally seen as a loyal friend and companion of Holmes, but always with a detached quality, mostly there for Holmes to explain a deduction out loud. This might have made him look like a mediocre man who happened to befriend a genius. Jude Law showed a capable character who was as involved in these events as Holmes, which was refreshing.
The story is not a direct adaptation of any of the original Holmes stories, which means that fans such as myself don’t have the benefit of knowing the ending. It is, however, filled with homages and references to those other stories, which are great texture for the movie, and continuous little rewards to those in the know.
I did have one problem with the story, though. Holmes enjoyably deduces his way through much of the movie, but there’s no central question that follows through the events. Often the climax of a Holmes tale will be a deduction that unlocks the whole series of events, and there’s no single moment like that. The closest we get is an antagonist (played by Mark Strong) who does seem to challenge Holmes’ dedication to logic and reason. Strong’s performance is compelling enough that it does bring the story into a complete package. Due to this, missing the ‘central mystery’ becomes glitch in an enjoyable adventure, instead of a fatal flaw.
Guy Ritchie’s filmmaking style is in strong evidence here, with London having a stylized gritty quality, without being surreal and overdone as Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd. The quick cuts that we’ve seen in his other work is on display here, inventively walking us through Holmes’ observations a few minutes after he’d made them. Those moments take on the quality of mini-mysteries, with their solutions being enjoyable payoffs.
Ritchie also has fun with Holmes’ physicality, and his abilities a fighter. This is another possibly unexpected take on the character, who many see as a quiet and reserved figure. These are also some of the moments I enjoyed most in the film. That same quick-cut style is applied as we watch Holmes think through his attacks in a methodical, beautifully brutal, process, and then watch the follow-through of those plans. This is shown near the beginning of the movie, and it immediately sets up Holmes as a character. Brilliant, supremely rational, and somewhat distant from other people, as he imagines debilitating his fellow man.
The quality of film-making the whole way through is kinetic and enjoyable. I often found myself tapping my foot to the rhthym of the beat and just laughing with the thrill of these adventures. The other aspect of the character many people forget is that he was an adventurer. He’s working with the police but not one of them, and that means that we are following the exploits of a vigilante, with all the excitement that goes with that title.
That distance, and his own attempts to bridge it with Watson, add more nuanced emotional quality that even some of the original stories lack. It’s worth seeing it all put together on the screen. I was originally put off by the ‘Holmes for the holidays’ advertsing tag line. I’m glad I wasn’t. This isn’t a slavish devotion to the source material, but an extension and adaptation. And a hell of a ride.