Sam reviews: Sherlock Holmes

May.30, 2010, filed under movies, Reviews

avatar I’m coming to this party late, as per usual — I should review Iron Man 2, if I want to be current, but I haven’t decided what to make of it yet. So, in lieu of that I shall review another Robert Downey Jr flick: Sherlock Holmes.

This is a fairly standard pseudo-occult, looks-like-magic-but-isn’t Holmesian adventure that those familiar with the character will recognise instantly. Conan Doyle is famous as a debunker of charlatans: his Fortean interests ranged from table-rapping and Spiritualism to the Cottingley Fairies, the latter of which he ardently supported and hoped would encourage a wider acceptance of paranormal phenomena:

The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.

I’ve always thought it either ironic or tragic that someone who wanted so much to be convinced about the objective reality of mysticism had his most famous character so frequently unmask the apparently supernatural as no more than a midget with filed teeth (or a dog covered in phosphorus) in a dénouement that has since been dumbed down into Scooby Doo’s janitorial miscreants.

The Baker’s Street Irregulars as pesky kids, indeed.

Assuming storytelling can be seen as a writer’s way of living out his fantasies, I wonder what Holmes’s debunking of the occult said about Conan Doyle’s feelings about what he had gained from Spiritualism.

Sherlock Holmes movie poster

RDJ was pretty good, though

But back to the film before I ramble off on some convoluted discussion of Thesophy and the history of British Occult practises. I’ll end up on Elizabeth St. George and voodoo lemons if I’m not careful.

The settings are reminiscent of From Hell, in a manner that manages to be slightly less grubby despite the apparent squalor in which this Holmes seems to live — I suspect that this dirt and untidiness is supposed to indicate Holmes’s preferred bachelor state of existence, or a focus on ‘higher’ things.

But this is Lock, Stock and Elementary, My Dear Watson, full of explosions and witty one-liners and fake homoerotic tension. We’re encouraged to infer that Holmes is threatened by a woman who wants to take Watson away from him and his own feelings for the American adventuress and criminal who is dangled as the poisoned bait throughout.

Robert Downey Jr does an excellent job playing Robert Downey Jr with an English accent, demonstrating that it’s not only Tony Stark he can make behave like an arrogant asshat. I found Jude Law to be engaging in a way that, for me, is unusual. Rachel McAdams was competent enough as the beautiful but dangerously able Irene Adler, even if she did end up having to be rescued by the men (there’s a suppressed rant in there) and Kelly Reilly was sadly forgettable, although I don’t think that was her fault. Mark Strong appeared to be asleep — I know he can do better and if he’s playing Sinestro in the new Green Lantern he’d better or he’ll upset the fanboys. Eddie Marsan gave the sort of understated, underused and quietly plausible performance I’m used to seeing from British character actors…

It’s not really very Holmes, though, is it?

I had watched Shore and Attanasio’s House for some time before Frood pointed out the obvious. What amused me the most about Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was that he resembled House more than he did Holmes. The effect was a rather like taking a sample of text, running it through Google’s translation engine to turn it into Icelandic and then reversing the process.

The recognition of the existence of material Jolt twentieth century note with great ruts in the mud and their will to make it recognize that it is a glamor and mystery of life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to recognize the spiritual message supported by physical incident that has already been submitted to him.

It’s still recognisable but it’s possible to see traces of the process.

Sherlock Holmes is a film based on a series of stories and books by a Scot of Irish descent writing about an Englishman, flavoured strongly by a TV series based in principle on the same tales in which an American is played by an Englishman, and which itself stars an American playing an Englishman.

There’s something delightfully silly about this.

Having said all that, Guy Ritchie’s take on the titular character is not one that necessarily invites any level of analysis. It is possible to take him as he is presented: Holmes meets Tyler Durdan; a man with the mental aptitude of a genius and the personal inclinations of a street thug, his refined aesthetics reduced to tuneless plucking of an abused violin and passing sartorial judgement on his best friend’s choice of waistcoats. The fiendish plots and inductive reasoning originally used to demonstrate the genius is here replaced by the false Chekhov’s Gun that is showing Holmes calculating entire sequences of fight moves followed by performance of the same, and a tan line upon a lady’s finger. The exotic and esoteric machinations of the evil-doers become misdirected unrequited love and a widget with a superfluous arc generator that doesn’t even spark.

House relies on an esoteric knowledge that we, the audience, can’t possibly hope to match. Ritchie’s Holmes relies on flash-forwards and withholding basic information until it’s time for it to be explained to us as if we were blind children.

I wonder what Conan Doyle would have to say about that.

If you want a good re-imagining of Holmes, I can do no better than recommend —highly— The List of Seven by Mark Frost. Yes, that Mark Frost.

I’m re-reading it myself right now.

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