Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Film Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes (2009; Directed by Guy Ritchie)

Guy Ritchie and his team give us a knockdown-dragout Sherlock Holmes with a likable lead duo, but the film gets away from its strengths too often to be really special. This is an action-adventure Holmes who tends to use his intellectual prowess to maximize the violence he inflicts upon ne’er-do-wells more than he uses them to deduce complex criminal plots (although he does more of the latter than the whiz-bang trailers might lead you to believe). Doylean purists will protest, but this Holmes is a perfectly reasonable entry into the Sherlockian pastiche genre whose once-prodigious and interesting output has slowed to a trickle over the past couple of decades.

Two Gentlemen of Baker Street

Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes amplifies the character’s eccentric antisociality and his grubby bohemianism (although than is nary a mention of his cocaine use, that grubbiest of his bohemian pursuits; I can imagine Warner execs giving notes on that). His Holmes is a genuine outsider in Late Victorian London, in opposition to Jeremy Brett’s sharp-tongued, prim gentleman take on the deathless sleuth. This type will prove rather familiar to audiences weaned in recent years on small-screen Sherlockians like Dr. House and “Bones” Brennan.

Jude Law’s Dr. Watson is perhaps the film’s real contribution to the generic history, maybe the most fleshed-out and competent version of Holmes’ sidekick (his Boswell, as he once calls him) that we’ve been given. Not only a fellow warrior but also a smart and capable confrere, Law’s Watson is as much an equal as he can be alongside the genius Holmes. Never is this Watson struck dumb by the great detective’s sheer brilliance, and more than once supports him and even outdoes him with his own intelligence, wit, and physical capabilities. The easily-astonished Watson may well be a more accurate canonical take, but those fond of the good doctor are glad to see him given such fond and formidable life by an actor the calibre of Law.

Unsurprising in such a Hollywood blockbuster, the duo’s man-of-action tendencies are emphasized. Ritchie gives us a lovingly-choreographed bare-knuckle boxing sequence that is lifted straight out of his earlier Snatch, and subsequent fights in a dusty lab and shipyard and then beneath Parliament and on an under-construction Tower Bridge provide further punched-up adrenaline.

But this is a literate and canny script that basically never falls into action-cliche quips and knows its Holmes. His powers of deduction and mastery of disguise get slick showcases, his interactions with Scotland Yard (represented by Eddie Maran’s Inspector Lestrade) have the right mix of dismissal and begrudging necessity, the fleeting references to past adventures are reasonable while not canonical, and the dialogue is peppered with references to Sherlockian lore like Mycroft Holmes, Mrs. Hudson and Watson’s Afghan War experience (to say nothing of the Wilkie Collins/Poe reference, a sly acknowledgement of Arthur Conan Doyle’s influences that wrung a grin from this literary nerd at least).

Would you believe it, Holmes? I'm in here for unpaid parking tickets!

This is also a visually rich and sophisticated film. The production design is grimy and overstuffed, shining with occasional steampunk touches. Shot by Oscar-winner Phillipe Rousselot, the film’s pallette is dominated by 19th century browns and greys, with blues and golds spearing through as signs of wealth and privilege. The action sequences are invariably cogent and well-shot; Ritchie reminds us that he knows more about choreographing screen violence than almost anyone else in Hollywood. There are even a couple of cineaste homages during the climax, a brief chase through sewers and up a staircase referencing The Third Man and Vertigo. On the aural side, Hans Zimmer’s violin-dominated score is unique and percussive, a surprising triumph from a human score factory from whom little of genuine inspiration tends to be expected. Once again, a major Warner tentpole release features copious aesthetic craftsmanship while providing uncomplicated but uninsulting entertainment.

Still, this is hardly a flawless piece of mass entertainment. Rachel McAdams lacks weight and wit as Irene Adler, a minor canonical figure inflated beyond proportion and yet reduced to a plot device here. She also hardly provides the level of eye-candy required of her. Kelly Reilly’s Mary Morstan is both comelier and feistier, but has even less to do beyond provide Holmes with a keen rival for Watson (there is next to no slashy stuff implied between the famous crime-solving partners, which heartens me). As with most blockbuster fare, this is a boy’s-own tale that has women on the periphery; the inclusion of Adler, the most well-known Holmes-beater outside of Professor Moriarty, might have promised more.

The real weakness of this Holmes, however, is its villain and that villain’s plot. Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood (yes, he’s actually called that) stalks the background and sneers about conquering the world, but he never seems a coherent-enough threat, probably because he’s so poorly-written, poorly-played, and entirely stock. His plot is grounded in Victorian spiritualism and Crowley-lite occultism as well as a quasi-Masonic secret society of the powerful. It comes across like a Coles Notes version of a pulpy comic book on the Victorian cultural fringe; it’s deeply silly and undermines all of the other solid features of the proceedings. It seems so cynically obvious that this franchise-launcher is just revving up for the entrance of Moriarty as the true nemesis figure in the next installment (and he haunts the film as a background menace far more effective and formidable than Blackwood) that there isn’t much of a push behind this antagonist.

So... how's the King of Bohemia? I trust he's well.

While it is disappointing that this goofy plot is being attached to an otherwise impeccable and exciting interpretation of Holmes’ world, it’s even more disappointing that it happened to a film with Guy Ritchie’s name at the top. What I would have given to see the man direct a real hardboiled crime plot set in this beautifully-portrayed milieu, a Snatch or Lock Stock in a wonderfully-realized fever-dream of 1890s London with literature’s greatest detective as its lead. Maybe this will happen with the likely-inevitable sequel, where we might also get some other canonical elements like menacing happenings in the countryside or evil filtering into the heart of England through the veins of its empire. Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is more than elementary, though it is hopefully most useful as a foundation for more well-rounded future efforts.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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