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Film Review: Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011; Directed by Guy Ritchie)

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films are a lot of things. They are stylishly mounted, exquisitely designed, delightfully scored, wittily written blockbuster entertainments, nicely acted by capable leads with solid, bantering chemistry and dedicated supporting character actors. The inevitable fisfights, shoot-outs and explosions are choreographed with impressive clarity that actually increases rather than diminishes their excitement level (other action directors should be taking note).

And more than anything, the movies are constructed as feverish, steampunk-inflected imaginative mash-ups of Late Victorian culture, society, politics, technology, and design. In this sequel alone, the setting careens from ornate restaurants and gambling parlours to Gilded Age Paris to subterranean anarchist hideouts and bomb labs to ramshackle Gypsy encampments, past an English country church-house and Victorian London drawing rooms onto a steaming night train, through the industrial bleakness of a German arms factory and the bullet-torn continental forests that will soon host a bloody world war to an isolated Swiss chateau poised precariously over a fateful waterfall.

In the context of tentpole studio releases, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is many things. The one thing it never really is, however, is a Sherlock Holmes story. It borrows characters and relationships, clever foreshadowed plotting, certain narrative developments, and a place and time from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories of the famous detective and his stalwart doctor sidekick. But it is not Sherlock. It’s an elaborate multi-million-dollar fan fiction, minus the slash elements (although unlike the first film, Ritchie finds room for a nod to the Holmes/Watson homosexual undertones, with Watson and a cross-dressing Holmes engaged in a suggestively leggy clench before the detective asks his companion to “lie down” with him). If these films did not have “Sherlock Holmes” at the front of them, I could praise them as prodigious entertainments without a second thought. But they do, so I cannot.

It’s a shame, because there’s lots to like about A Game of Shadows, as there was about its preceding chapter. Following generally but not strictly on the events of the previous film, this installment commences in the aforementioned Paris, where Holmes (Robert Downey Jr., in full roguish trickster mode) thwarts an attempted auction house bombing involving his female muse from last time around, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams in a thankfully brief appearance). This thwarting has unfortunate consequences for Adler, as her patron in this incident is the calculating, ruthless “Napoleon of crime”, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, ie. Lane Pryce on Mad Men), and he is none too forgiving of her failure nor of her apparent feelings for the master detective who is his soon-to-be-nemesis.

Now everyone run very close to each other, to stay in frame…

That nemesis is reeling in hyperactive distress at the impending nuptials of Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), which is depriving him of his Boswell, his brother-in-arms. Inviting only his own actual brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry, wonderful if always entirely himself) to Watson’s stag party on the eve of the wedding, Holmes becomes sidetracked by the case as always, speaking with Romani fortune-teller Madame Simza (Noomi Rapace of the Swedish Millennium Trilogy films, her cheekbones virtually swordfighting with Reilly’s for female window-dressing supremacy) and then saving her from a Cossack assassin in a motion-filled fight sequence. After dragging a hungover Watson to the altar (a nice bit of subtle physical comedy) and parleying with a coolly threatening Moriarty in his college office, Holmes must save his doctor friend from a honeymoon murder attempt and then, with Simza’s help, uncover Moriarty’s tangled conspiracy before the Professor triggers an international incident with catastrophic consequences. As Downey’s casually frantic and absent-mindedly brilliant Holmes puts it, “No pressure”.

The plotting and dialogue (the screenplay is by Kieran and Michele Mulroney) is sharp and creative, flashing back and sometimes forward in order to catch up with or anticipate Holmes’ riffs of intellectual virtuosity. There is some lovely self-aware play with the “Holmes-o-vision” feature of the first film, wherein Downey’s Holmes diagrams each thrust and parry of a fight before physically carrying it out: neither time does his plan pan out as expected, the second occasion with quite dramatic consequences.

Still, the titular “game of shadows” between Holmes and Moriarty is not left shadowy enough, and that is a failing. A chess board appears in their initial meeting at the college, and their climactic meeting sees them playing an actual game of chess. The over-literality in which their conflict of wits is couched is not to the script’s credit, although a mid-film confrontation in a warehouse involving a suspended hook and a grammaphone playing Schubert is more memorable, as Harris suggests a chilling psychopathy that his otherwise buttoned-down menace precludes.

How about I turn on some classical music and do something crazy? Does that sound nice to you?

On a stylistic level, there’s plenty of red meat for the flashy Ritchie to sink his camera’s teeth into, and he does so with relish. The pursuit through a Teutonic forest in particular, with Holmes and his compatriots dodging the entire multifarious arsenal of an arms plant, offers plenty of chances for the director and his team to show off from a technical and aesthetic perspective. The shutter speed slows and quickens with muscular poetic bravado, showing bullets skimming waistcoats and shells splintering pine tree trunks. After this stunning visual sequence, the climax at a diplomatic ball is a bit of a letdown, although it does privilege detection methods over fists for once in the course of the films.

This last point, I think, is the essence of why Ritchie’s films cannot quite aspire to the Sherlockian mantle, despite all there is to recommend them otherwise. The cinema is a visual medium first, and Ritchie a visual filmmaker far before he is a coraller of actors or a lassooer of language. Thus, this Holmes’ brilliance manifests in physical ways, in the schematics of violence and the details of disguises, moreso than in the spheres of intellect and logic that are focused on by Conan Doyle. This is not only a simpler and more accessible way of rendering the rational exercises of the canonical tales for a mass audience, but it makes ample sense on a visceral level and for the particular actor portraying Holmes. For all of his gifts with delivering dialogue, Robert Downey Jr.’s career rennaissance has had much to do with the renewed mastery of physical detail that gained him notice in Chaplin in the first place.

But A Game of Shadows reinforces the fact that Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films are derived from a certain set of assumptions about what Conan Doyle’s seminal detective stories are all about. With their complexly organized settings of the Late Victorian milieu and colour scale of greys, blacks, navy blues, and browns, these films make it clear that what their crafters find most notable and appealing about the Holmes tales is their time, place, mood, and tone, rather than the demonstrations of rational prowess that their author intended them to be.

One can never help but contrast these recent Hollywood adaptations of Sherlock Holmes with the popular BBC television versions set in the present day that are their direct contemporaries (the first series of Sherlock followed the initial Sherlock Holmes‘ release by 8 months, and Series Two began airing a mere two weeks after A Game of Shadows came out). But it is not temporal conjunction alone that sets these two adaptations against each other, but overarching philosophy as well. Where the films come from the aforementioned direction of physical manifestations and socio-historical location, the television version moves the stories out of their Victorian milieu into the modern day while also engaging in more complex intertextual interactions with them. For the creators of the BBC Sherlock, the Holmes canon is about the mind, while for Guy Ritchie and Warner Brothers, it is about the eye and the body. I think I have made it clear in this blog space where I stand on this dichotomy of the intellectual versus the corporeal, but it’s up to each Holmes-interested viewer to decide where they position themselves on this question.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews
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  1. January 16, 2014 at 6:14 pm

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