26 December 2009

Holmes Away From Holmes

Did everyone have a good Christmas then? A big old blog post is coming after 8pm on New Year's Day, when David Tennant will have handed the key to the TARDIS over to Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith and I'll be some manner of soggy, crying wreck on the sofa. Part One of "The End of Time" astounded and confused me in equal measure, but I loved it. But to the matter at hand- Christmas Day has given way to Boxing Day, which is the unofficial National 'Nothing Happens' Day. It does however herald the release of Sherlock Holmes in UK cinemas, so I went along to see that. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

So Sherlock Holmes is the latest reinvention of Arthur Conan Doyle's anti-social but brilliant detective, gadding around Victorian London with his loyal friend and war veteran, Dr. John Watson. With Guy Ritchie at the helm, this version sees Holmes and Watson take on Lord Henry Blackwood, a practitioner of the dark arts who is hanged after Holmes brings him to justice. When Blackwood rises from the grave, a chain of events are set in motion that threaten to change the world forever, not to mention the implications for the weary Watson's imminent engagement. Matters are complicated further by the involvement of the only person ever to outwit Holmes, the beautiful and wily Irene Adler, who has a shady employer working behind the scenes...

I should say at this relatively early point of the review that I read the script for this film some six months ago. My verdict then was that it was a film that would be made or broken by its performances, not by its plot or writing. There appears to have been a couple of rewrites since the version I downloaded, emphasising certain of the minor aspects detailed above, but I still think that holds true. The one potentially fatal flaw of the film is that is fails to establish and maintain a balance between comedy and horror. It's a rip-roaring historical adventure like the best of that cinematic sub-set, but physical comedy jars with the more atmospheric and creepy stuff. At some points, it's in danger of looking like the result of a high-speed collision between Shanghai Knights and From Hell. It's really saved from that by its cast, who are excellent without exception.

Robert Downey Jr. hasn't been changed much by his suddenly ballooning fame and renown, and he's still a terrific actor. He sports a surprisingly good English accent for Holmes, and really brings out the misanthropic aspects of Conan Doyle's original character. Jude Law also embodied certain overlooked aspect of the literary Watson- he's more like the wounded soldier than the slightly-awed sidekick of other adaptations. But more on that in a bit, because although these two take centre-stage, Mark Strong very nearly steals the show as the villainous Lord Blackwood- a really threatening screen villain who wields enormous presence throughout. Rachel McAdams is slightly less memorable but no less competent as Irene, mostly because the script has slightly crossed purposes, in presenting her both as a match for Holmes and as a damsel in distress where the plot requires one.

Adler is more than just eye candy though, and she's one of many things that have been transported to the film from the literary canon, where Holmes also fancied the pants off her and referred to her only as "the woman". However, the story isn't adapted from one of Conan Doyle's, and it's blatantly been a little sexed-up for the Hollywood treatment. For instance, another of the less prominent aspects of previous versions of Holmes is his skill as both a boxer and a fencer. In front of Guy Ritchie's lens, this makes Holmes a shirtless bare-knuckle fighter, albeit one who still uses his wits in the process of felling his opponents. In that respect at least, Downey Jr's Holmes is like no other before him, but the characters are translated very well for the most part. Law's Watson gets frequently gets fed up with Holmes' foibles, and quite right too- you can believe they've had to get on with each other for a very long time, and the performances just add another dimension to that.

Looking to the future is an almost inescapable act in the course of watching Sherlock Holmes. I'm really not spoiling anything by saying that Adler's shady employer is Professor Moriarty, because it's a fact that will be obvious to anyone who has ever been aware of the Holmes canon from the first rendezvous between Rachel McAdams and a handily shadow-laden gentleman. It's more reminiscent of the early Blofeld appearances in James Bond than of the tantalising glimpse of a joker card at the end of Batman Begins, and that's a slight problem. It's rare that a film seems so obviously set on a sequel, and that's difficult to get around whenever Moriarty appears (or rather doesn't appear) in this one. But as I said, those appearances are fleeting, and I imagine that a second viewing will allow me to get more swept up in Blackwood's doings now that I know the extent of the other baddy's involvement.

To recap though, 2009 began with the tidings that Guy Ritchie, he of Revolver fame, was directing Sherlock Holmes, with an American (even if that American is a brilliant actor) in the title role and Jude "smarmy fuck" Law as Watson. I was understandably gnashing my teeth with disgust at this prospect. Now we're at the opposite end of the year and I've actually seen the film, I can happily report that there's no shit in Sherlock. This is different to any other film Guy Ritchie has ever directed, and it's certainly much more entertaining. Tonally uneven, but a terrific adventure to which I wouldn't object about seeing a sequel in a couple of years. At least not too vociferously anyway.


Planet 51 and Nowhere Boy still to come before the end of the year, along with a few others I mentioned in the Christmas Eve post. On top of that, I'll be bringing you my personal favourite and least favourite films in cinemas for the last year. I'll hold off the lists for the decade until next month, because they might take a little longer to ponder and collate. I'm sure you're waiting with bated breath for that, but in the meantime, why not post your thoughts on Sherlock Holmes in the comments?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, have a very Merry Christmas.

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