Saturday, December 26, 2009

On the Big Screen: SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009)

If you are looking for a proper mystery plot, forget it. If you're looking for a film of Victorian manners, you'll be but partially satisfied. But for all the fuss about how much Guy Ritchie's new film is inappropriately an action film, it seems to me to partake of the spirit of popular literature from the period from which the original Holmes emerged. And I think that Robert Downey Jr. gets to the essence of the character as a brilliant eccentric who disturbs the repose of his environment. He is probably the most articulate action hero there has ever been, and fully convincing in his dialogue (by three writers) as a creature of Victorian England. Holmes has been reimagined as someone who suffers from sensory overload and a compulsively analytical mind, a consciousness he must repress with drugs, drink, or the occasional round of pit fighting in the film's one truly gratuitous scene. This is an elaboration rather than a transformation of Holmes; in practice the detective is the same wizard of ratiocination as ever, except when Irene Adler is in the room or, almost generally, when the subject turns to women.

Encountering Watson's fiancee for the first time, he nearly perfectly maps her past from the evidence before him, but his one error earns him a face full of wine from the indignant woman; he had assumed a mercenary motivation when the true explanation was more tragic. He is uncertain around women due either to misogyny or inexperience, and this has fueled speculation about his relationship with Watson, who here is his roommate but on his way out to live with the fiancee. Some reviewers are drawing inferences about the roommates from a modern frame of reference, but a little cinematic literacy leads one to conclude that Holmes and Watson have no more or less of a "bromance" than the three protagonists of Gunga Din. As Watson, Jude Law is in the same position as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the 1939 film, except that this being a little less of a Boy's Own story than that quasi-Kipling saga, the good doctor gets to have things both ways, with an indulgent wife allowing him continued adventures with his friend.

I am no Sherlockian and have never read a word of Conan Doyle. My standard of authenticity is the Jeremy Brett TV series from the 1980s, and as I've said, I see a consistency between Downey's bits of brusque arrogance and bursts of belittling wit and Brett's domineering manner. I do know that for all that Doyle himself succumbed to spiritualism after World War I, he kept Holmes a strict skeptic, and I was relieved to see that all the supernatural elements of the new story are properly debunked by the end. The one point I see as an injustice to Doyle and his creation is the scene in which Adler has to inform Holmes of the existence of Professor Moriarty (a vocal but facially unseen presence here). This undermines what I took to be Holmes's gradual, obsessive discovery of the Napoleon of Crime, which could have been a subsequent movie unto itself.

But as no Sherlockian I didn't mind at all this being an action film, especially since Ritchie pulled off the challenge of balancing period flavor and a frantic modern pace. This film is as much a CGI-a-rama as any action film, but it keeps the actors foregrounded, and they prevent the effects from upstaging them. In one scene a half-built steamship has been accidentally sent sliding into the Thames, nearly crushing Holmes and Watson on its way. But as the hulk splashes into the river Downey un-ducks his head and pops his eyes wide to steal the scene. He has learned how to master the CGI screenscape and may now have two ongoing franchises in which to refine that mastery. He commands the screen like a silent film star, and some of Ritchie's images and furious montages have the primal power of that period. One sequence that crosscuts from Holmes and Watson battling an Eric Campbell-like menace (Robert Maillet)to Adler attempting an escape through sewers with pilfered goods to chaos in the House of Lords and closeups of the glowering villain, all to the even more furious beat of Hans Zimmer's score, may seem attention-deficient to some eyes, but to me, and maybe because of the period, it was more reminiscent of D.W. Griffith than Michael Bay. My overall impression is that Ritchie has established continuity with the old tradition of genre cinema rather than breaking with it in any offensive way. Why, he even has a scene with a heroine on a conveyor mechanism menaced by a saw! In simpler terms, he's made a kick-ass movie that, in my view, doesn't really violate the spirit of Holmes -- not that Arthur Conan Doyle ever cared about that, anyway.

While Downey is his present masterful self, and Jude Law may have found the role he was born to play, I must confess that Rachel McAdams fails as Irene Adler. Her dialogue isn't written at the same level as the lead actors', either because that's meant to mark her as American or because the writers knew that McAdams simply couldn't speak the lines otherwise. Whatever the reason, she doesn't come across as brilliantly as Adler should, and the actress looks and sounds like what she probably is, a modern American out of her depth. It's too bad if this role reveals her limitations, since I really liked her in Red Eye, but even some great ones could never do period, and maybe McAdams should restrict herself accordingly.

While I liked the film quite a bit, I understand that the liberties taken with Doyle's creations may make Sherlock Holmes less likable for some if not many other viewers. And while I won't concede the last word to Sherlockians, I can see how the tone of the thing might turn off people who find the crash and bang inappropriate for the material. But I think the crash and bang are well enough orchestrated and kept from overshadowing the actors to make Ritchie's Holmes an objectively good film, whether it's a great Holmes film or not.


Castor said...

Very good review and you sum it up.

I agree that Ritchie stayed faithful to the essence of the character as you allude to several time. It is the people who got used to a certain interpretation of the character who may find a problem with how the characters are portrayed.

I, however, did not have any problem with McAdams herself, but more with how the writer handled her character who disappears for large stretch of the movie and never gets any chance to establish herself and is just thrown into the action fray at the end. In my view, Adler is American and a woman much ahead of her time so she didn't seem out of place. It might have been a better fit for McAdams to play the Irene Adler from the original material (who isn't a con-artist) but again, that's not her choice.

Finally, I also thought the bad guy was pretty weak and one-dimensional (despite the solid Mark Strong). All of these issues are probably due to the focus on the action set piece and the Holmes/Watson relationship so those are nice consolation prizes :)

ThatQuebecGuy said...

I wanted to go see Avatar, but after reading this review, I think I'm gonna go see Sherlock Holmes first.

hobbyfan said...

Yah, Holmes is on my to-do list, mostly to satisfy my curiosity. However, let's remember that most old school fans will still hold up Basil Rathbone as the standard by which Holmes should be played, as opposed to Jeremy Brett's well-acclaimed works of the 80's.

Judy said...

Excellent review which exactly sums up how I felt about the movie too, though I couldn't have put it so well! I do agree that there are a lot of standard blockbuster CGI sequences and yet the actors stay foregrounded, and also agree that the prizefight is gratuitously violent. I also really like your point about Downey having the sort of quality of a silent film star (maybe partly a result of playing Chaplin?) I have read some Conan Doyle and always liked the character but can see the purists will find a lot of it hard to take. I thought the fact that Moriarty was only mentioned briefly probably means the sequel is being geared up here - though, if Downey does end up in two franchises, as you suggest, I wonder when he is going to find time to do the quirkier roles too.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, folks.

Castor: My problem with McAdams may be a matter of tone. Her dialogue doesn't seem to be written at the same level of wit as Downey's, and if the film wants to present Adler as Holmes's equal it should have been. I thought Strong was okay but limited by the need to tease his supernatural nature. But I don't need Holmes to face a super-villain every time, since he didn't in his stories.

QuebecGuy: Since I haven't seen Avatar I can't really tell you which to see first, but I'm flattered by your confidence in my opinion.

Hobby: The thing that bugs me is that reviewers are comparing Jude Law to Nigel Bruce as if Bruce were some sort of standard or even accurate portrayal of Dr. Watson.

Judy: Some people are going to this film with their knives out for Guy Ritchie, but when they do they risk missing how much this film is simply a star vehicle for Robert Downey and how much Downey really dominates all other elements. Because I think Downey succeeds at his task, I think the film succeeds as well despite some obvious flaws.

hanum said...

I like this movie, really awesome, cool.