Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Sherlock Holmes: Robert Downey Jr.
Doctor Watson: Jude Law
Year: 2011
Case: The Final Problem


Reviewer’s Note:

Yes, I have ranked this above Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes, though not because of any improvements made on Ritchie’s part.  No, that additional pipe is because this adaptation is the first to depict Holmes/Watson as canon.  It is a glorious extra pipe and this is a glorious adaptation.

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes

I am still not sold on Robert Downey Jr. as the Holmes of my generation, though it is still through no fault of Mr. Downey Jr..  He is a fantastic actor, more than capable of owning the role, that is, should he be given a script that does Holmes’ character justice.  That said, this script did a fair bit better than the first film.  I found him far more recognizable here than I did the first time around.  Perhaps this is entirely due to my familiarity with this take on Holmes, and so my expectations were already set.  I suspect, however, this is entirely due to Downey, who somehow managed to take an at times ill-written Holmes and convey such tangible vulnerability in the character that I soon forgot the many (and often blinding) character quibbles.

Was I impressed that Holmes seemed incapable of riding a horse, when he is an excellent equestrian?  Of course not, but by the same token, Downey’s comedic timing made the scene as humorous as it was intended.  Was I impressed that Holmes spent the entirety of the film looking rumpled and unkempt?  Of course not, but Holmes’ absence of hygiene was overlooked in favour of his quick wit and deductive skills.  Was I mildly embarrassed to watch Holmes drinking himself into a stupor and then dance gaily with a band of Gypsies?  Naturally, but it was worth the agony to see Holmes take Watson’s hand the next morning and lead him to his wedding ceremony.

The thing which elevates this performance, and this characterization, is that Downey utterly convinced me that he was a man in love with, and pining over, his best male friend, at a time when such a thing could not only cause scandal and ruin, but gaol time as well.  This is the Holmes of Canon.  The Holmes who utterly adored Watson, who did everything in his power to keep Watson at his side, and yet, who remained stoically silent on what his heart desired, not because he cared for his ruin, but because he cared for Watson’s.

Jude Law as Doctor Watson

I am as enamoured now as I was the first time around with Jude Law’s performance as Doctor Watson.  Perhaps I still live in fear of a bumbling, comedic-relief Watson, and so am easily impressed, but to see a Watson capable of matching wits with Holmes, of handling himself in a fight, of following his own intuitive leaps in logic; it is a thing of beauty.

The conflict, too, which is so utterly apparent in this Watson, torn between marrying the woman he purports to love and remaining with the man he so clearly loves, is stunning.  There was such incredibly tension between Holmes and Watson in this film and it is exactly because of this nuance in Watson’s characterization.  Law plays a fantastically stoic and yet utterly adventurous Watson, as drawn to Holmes as a moth to a flame.

Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes

Dear, God.  Has anyone ever conceived of a better Mycroft Holmes? I have adored many a Mycroft, but none as much as Mr. Fry.  He is so ideally suited to the role–brought such intensity to the role–that he will forever be Mycroft Holmes in my mind.  His performance made me wish this was a television series, rather than a film series, so that I could watch them tackle case after case with Sherlock’s brother.  One can easily imagine Fry assuming an even greater role as they depict in The Greek Interpreter, or the Bruce Partington Plans.

Jarred Harris as Professor Moriarty

It was almost marginally disappointing, after so strong a showing from Fry, to have a Moriarty who was, although not terrible, fairly marginal as Moriarty’s go.  There was nothing wrong with Harris’ Moriarty, per se–he was perfectly serviceable–but he was not entirely memorable.  In fact, Moran seemed a far more dynamic character in this, and I suspect this is more a failing of the script than Harris’ performance.  Moriarty is meant to be a menacing, shadowy figure.  There seemed to be an attempt at expanding Moriarty’s character here (the opera, the pigeons–which were almost as ludicrous as the orchids Rathbone’s Moriarty grew).  Moriarty is better served as a villain, in my humble opinion, when he remains a complete mystery to the audience.  In an attempt to give his character depth, everything that made him such a sinister character seemed stripped away.

Other Characters

There weren’t many additions in this film, though there were a few delightful cameos (Lestrade, Alder–I’m still in shock they killed her off), and of course an expanded role for Mary Watson, nee Morstan.  Kelly Reilly was, as always, exceptional in the role, and I adore the steady strength and patient understanding of her Mary.  As mentioned above, Sebastian Moran was impressively depicted, though I still felt Mrs. Hudson’s role was rather erroneous (though I suspect I am still somewhat baffled by the animosity between her and Holmes).  Noomi Rapace played a convincing and interesting character, though such a throw-away one that I can’t even be bothered looking up the name of the woman she played.  Aside from that, the real star of this film is the relationship.  And by that I mean:

Holmes and Watson

Well, they’ve officially done it.  Holmes and Watson now have an adaptation in which they are canon.  The Bert Coules radio dramatizations came close, but Guy Ritchie had done what no one else has ever managed.

He has portrayed Holmes and Watson as canonically in love.

I assure you, I am delighted.

Normally at this point I would expound on subtext and sub-plots, but the truth is, those aren’t present here.  The entire point of the movie was this:

Watson got married, broke Holmes’ heart, Holmes’ nemesis, recognizing Holmes’ feelings for Watson, threatened Watson’s life, Holmes sacrificed his life to save Watson.

It’s a modern Hollywood romance.  It really, really is.

This is also where I would normally examine several scenes, but here they are so blatantly obvious that I suspect even a drunk chimpanzee would leave the theatre “shipping” Holmes and Watson.

I think Ritchie’s even out-subtexted Canon.  I wasn’t sure that was possible.

Oh, they kept in several Canon based references.  There is Watson visiting Holmes, but certainly Watson never offered to “trim Holmes bushes”, nor did Holmes ever forcibly embrace Watson, nor did they ever stand so close I half expected them to kiss.

And certainly Holmes was always kidnapping Watson to take him on grand adventures, Watson willingly abandoning his wife to do so, but never did they plan on having a “romp” together before Watson’s marriage, nor did Holmes subtly suggest that Watson would prefer to marry than live in purgatory (sinning–for sodomy was seen as a sin in those days) with Holmes.

And yes, Holmes and Watson dined together, quite often, but never did Holmes plan a date with Watson in lieu of Watson’s stag party.

Now, Holmes’ pining and heartbreak at Watson’s nuptials was certainly Canon, and while I can see Holmes usurping Watson’s honeymoon, and even assuming a female costume (the Holmes of Canon did several times) I can’t say Holmes and Watson have ever wrestled, or that Watson has ever had his head between Holmes’ legs, or that Watson had ever torn Holmes’ clothes from his body, all of this after Holmes threw Watson’s wife from a moving train.

We’re not even halfway through the film yet.

We haven’t even gotten to the phallic imagery of Holmes’ concealed weapons, or the cuddling on the floor of the train car, Holmes half naked.  In fact, I suspect, if they’d made this film a gay porno, in which Holmes and Watson spent two hours having copious amounts of sex, it would have been less gay.

Then there’s Holmes calling their partnership a relationship, which was immediately followed by Holmes taking Watson on a honeymoon.  Or perhaps we’ll touch on the repression scene.  Or the agony in Watson’s expression when he knew Holmes was being tortured.  Or perhaps the extremeness of his reaction, never mind his choice of weaponry.  Entire novels could be written on that scene alone.

Granted, we were deprived of a mouth-to-mouth scene during Holmes’ temporary death, but that can be forgiven given that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation wasn’t invented until 1956.  This was more than made up for by having Holmes and Watson DANCE WITH EACH OTHER, ballroom style, with the subtle (as subtle as a bull in a china shop) suggestion that it was Holmes who taught Watson to dance (likely inside the privacy of their Baker Street rooms).

I believe I said there was no need to point out these scenes, and yet here I’ve done exactly that, though certainly not all of them.  I didn’t touch on Holmes’ decision to sacrifice himself for Watson, or Watson’s utter heartbreak.  Nor did I touch on Watson’s elation when he suspects Holmes is alive.  There are countless dozens of scenes, scattered throughout the film which lead the viewer to only one conclusion.

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are in love with each other.

This is why this adaptation has earned 5 out of 5 pipes.

Delightful Elements

Obviously the above is the most delightful aspect of this film, but I will touch on some of the non-Holmes/Watson aspects of this film.

It goes without saying that this film is visually stunning.  The sets, the costumes, the cinematography, the gritty editing; it’s a very visually appealing movie.

The plot of this film is far, far better than the first.  It is actually somewhat clever and interesting, not to mention quite well paced.  What is particularly impressive is that it is an original story, and yet still recognizable as a Sherlock Holmes mystery.  There are not many who can duplicate Doyle’s flair.  The story’s structure may have been borrowed from FINA, but within that confine the writers did a fantastic job of fleshing out an actual storyline.  It was quite engaging.

There is also a lot of fan service in this film.  And not just for the student of subtext (though I suspect this entire film was made simply to pander to slash fandom, which is fairly remarkable considering such a thing would have been unheard of only a decade ago).  There are numerous references to Canon.  Holmes’ bust, and his cocoa leaves, the serum, complete with a monkey reference!  The Diogenes Club!  Handwriting analysis, not to mention several lines lifted directly from FINA.  Come at once if convenient; if inconvenient come all the same!  Holmes playing the game for the game’s sake.


This was one of the things I enjoyed in the first film, so I am doubly pleased to see them here (in what is, in my humble opinion, a far stronger adaptation).


Sadly, no Sherlock Holmes adaptation would be complete without a few quibbles, and this film is no exception.

There were a good number of things I didn’t like about this film.  There were numerous times when Holmes appeared slow witted, being outsmarted by several foes.  The dialogue wasn’t as sharp in this film as its original counterpart.  In fact, at times it felt entirely too modern, entire lines lacking the Victorianism I was hoping for.

Holmes, too, was entirely too modern.  Watching Holmes drive a motor car (the same Holmes who put off getting a telephone in favour of sending telegrams because he didn’t want to move into the next century) was jarring to say the least.

The entire cooking an omelette metaphor Holmes leads us through during one of his ‘deduce a fight’ scenes.  Is there anyone on the planet who can picture Holmes cooking an omelette?  Given the stew he was eating on the Moors during HOUN, I don’t think the man would even know where to start.

The side plot with Rapace’s character could have been removed entirely, along with the “plastic surgery” storyline, which only muddled and made ridiculous an otherwise interesting and complicated plot.

We have already touched on the horseback riding scene.

I have no idea what to think of Holmes’ camouflage.  Certainly it provided for some comedy, but at the heart of it, it was plain ridiculous.

And, of course, this is a Guy Ritchie film, which means we had to endure numerous fumbling fight-scenes, stop motion filming, and explosions, lots of explosions–some of which served to keep the pace moving, I grant, but most were simply gratuitous.


I went in, after having seen Sherlock Holmes, expecting a decent film, and came out having seen a far better film than I was expecting.  I somehow managed to fill an entire 5.5″ x 3.5″ Moleskine (every page) with rambling notes and many, many a doodled heart.  This still isn’t an accurate portrayal of the Sherlock Holmes of Canon, but I may have fallen a little bit in love with Downey’s Holmes.  It certainly helps that his is the first Holmes to canonically acknowledge both his attraction and his love for Doctor Watson.

Bravo, Mr. Ritchie, I salute you.