Film Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

December 31st, 2009 | Tags: , ,

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes: Robert Downey Jr.
Dr. Watson: Jude Law
Year: 2009
Case: Original

Rating:

Reviewer’s Note

I want to first confess that I was quite torn on the release of this film. Part of me was thrilled to finally get a chance to see Sherlock Holmes on the big screen, while a larger part of me was terrified of what this film would bring. I am speaking, of course, of the Sherlockian community and fandom. I worry movie goers will herald this adaptation as the dawn of Sherlock Holmes fandom, and while I do expect a surge in fans and followers (a good thing, I assure you), I want to take a moment to remind all the new fans who might be reading this that the Sherlock Holmes fandom is older than your grandparents. In fact, the first known pastiche (what would today be called fanfiction) was written in 1893 (written by J.M. Barrie). To put that in perspective, at that point in history there were no: radios, televisions, computers, vacuum cleaners, airplanes, teabags, Einstein, cornflakes, plastic, split atoms, cell phones, motion pictures, zippers, stainless steel, self-winding watches, penicillin, ball point pens, etc, etc, ad nauseum.

So if you are new to Sherlock Holmes, and this film was your introduction, please, please remember that Sherlockians are a fickle bunch, and we will make you sit at the kids table until you have at least read Canon and seen two other adaptations. For those completely new to Holmes, I’d recommend starting with the Granada Series. Jeremy Brett is, to many, the quintessential Sherlock Holmes. My apologies to Mr. Robert Downey Jr.. Next you may want to get your hands on Burt Coules’ radio adaptations. Clive Merrison is quite possibly the best Sherlock Holmes in the history of all Sherlock Holmeses. My apologies to Basil Rathbone.

But most importantly: READ THE STORIES. They’re free. They’re online: http://sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk

And they’re even slashier than Guy Ritchie would have you believe.

So now that that’s out of the way; onto the review.

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes

I am so completely torn on what to think of Downey’s Holmes. On the one hand, I was thoroughly entertained by Downey. On the other; this is not Sherlock Holmes. At least, this is not my Sherlock Holmes (and I suspect a good number of Sherlockians would agree with me). A dishevelled, at times drunken, combative, and petulant Sherlock Holmes is so far removed from the Sherlock Holmes of Canon that I had a hard time reconciling the character. The problem, of course, is in the writing (and perhaps directing), not in Downey’s acting. In fact, given a good script, I think Downey could own the role. And I’m saying this as a Downey novice (i.e. I was quite ambivalent regarding him as an actor prior to seeing this film). He impressed me, and made me like the character, even though I couldn’t recognize him as “the” Sherlock Holmes.

Oh, he has many of Sherlock’s qualities. He is clever (though not as brilliant as the Holmes of Canon), he is charming, he is manic, at times quite mad, and he can certainly kick criminal ass, but he lacks the polish I think most Sherlockians were hoping for. Where is the subtlety of Canon’s Holmes? Where is the catlike, well-groomed gentleman of Canon, who silently raged at the injustices of the world, all while systematically rooting them out and sending their perpetrators to gaol?

That is not to say that I disliked this interpretation of Holmes. He did not ring true –was not entirely credible as Sherlock Holmes– but he was interesting. I liked Holmes’ vulnerability in this adaptation, something I think the Holmes of Canon worked very hard to suppress. I liked, too, his complete inability to take care of himself (i.e. leaving the stove on, having Watson force him out of the house), something I think Watson glossed over in Canon, but was none-the-less a true aspect of Holmes’ character.

I really would like to see Downey tackle the role with a better script, because I suspect he is entirely capable of setting himself up as the pivotal Sherlock Holmes. It was almost a shame his talents were so obviously wasted (though what good was inherent in the role, I suspect was entirely his doing). Perhaps the impending sequel will attempt to improve upon Holmes’ characterization.

Jude Law as Doctor Watson

It is both the characterization of Doctor Watson, and Jude Law’s portrayal of Holmes’ most intimate friend and companion, which elevates this film from a three pipe rating to a four. Those who have been reading my reviews will likely know that I am, above and beyond all things, a Watson fangirl. As such, any adaptation which presents a strong, capable, intelligent, and useful Watson will earn my admiration. Law’s Watson is all of these things.

This is the Watson of Canon. This is the Watson who keeps Holmes in check, puts Holmes in his place, and yet, still marvels and excites over every little thing that Holmes does. This is the Watson who tends the dying and sick on Tuesdays, then turns around and kicks ass on Wednesdays. This is the Watson who jumps at the chance to solve a mystery, and solves it, even if he needs a little help getting from his observations to his conclusion. This Watson is the Watson I fell in love with, and for that I will always be grateful to this adaptation.

Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler

I know a lot of people were not impressed by the Canon changes for Adler’s character, but I have to say, turning her into a criminal dramatically improved my interest in the character. I have never been an Adler fan, and do not share the majority Sherlockian view that Adler was somehow the heroine of the Sherlock Holmes stories. To being with, she is a deplorable character. She blackmails a king, because he will not marry her, and then changes her mind, because she finds the love of a better man. It boggles my mind that there are any female Sherlockians anywhere who are not offended by this character. She is a testament to Doyle’s occasional bouts of misogyny. Oh why, oh why, Watson, could you not have written Violet Smith as The Woman? If any woman deserves Sherlock’s admiration and respect, it is Miss Smith.

But I digress.

Turning Adler into a criminal, whose motives are driven, not by petty spite and jealousy, but rather boredom and the desire for adventure, elevates Adler to Holmes’ level. Here she is a true match for the Great Detective, and this is something I don’t think a single adaptation has managed to do (ironically enough, by remaining too true to Canon). While I still do not subscribe to the notion that Holmes’ interest in Adler was sexual (if anything, this adaptation emphasizes this point, as Holmes’ discomfort with Adler’s advances is blindingly obvious), it was refreshing to see him match wits with someone who is truly his intellectual equal.

Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood

As Sherlock Holmes villains go, Lord Blackwood is an interesting one. He is certainly not the Holmes-equal that Moriarty was, but he is on par with the likes of Stapleton (HOUN fame). Strong’s performance is top-notch, and while I do wish they had pitted Holmes against a more worthy nemesis, it is obvious this is intended for the film’s sequel(s) (i.e. with the introduction of Moriarty). Still, one cannot complain about Strong’s presence in the film, for he certain adds an air of suspense and danger to the atmosphere. He is quite diabolical.

Other Characters

Several other characters, recognizable from Canon, make an appearance in this film, though their roles are not profound. Geraldine James plays a disappointing Mrs. Hudson, who is not at all the strong, matronly landlady of Canon. Eddie Marsan plays Inspector Lestrade, who is, sadly, quite maltreated throughout the bulk of the film (note to writers: Holmes and Lestrade may have butted heads, and Holmes was never one to shy from insulting Lestrade, but beneath it all he did like and respect the man). Kelly Reilly plays Mary Morstan, and while the character is quite unrecognizable, Reilly portrayal is quite charming. I like the Mary of Canon, and I liked this Mary, too, which is impressive given that she is the largest stumbling block in Holmes and Watson’s relationship. Aside from that there are a number of supporting players, none of whom stand out in any fashion, save perhaps the anonymous, shadowed man meant to be Moriarty, but I anticipate we will not have long to wait before making his introduction.

The Relationships

Holmes and Adler

I confess; I always worry when a Holmes film includes Irene Adler. Above, I’ve discussed my dislike for the character in Canon, but there is nothing worse than the assumption that she is somehow Holmes’ only love interest. I was pleasantly surprised, then, by her role in this film. Oh, don’t get me wrong; there are times when watching her interaction with Holmes was quite awkward, but overall she came across a strong, well rounded character. Their relationship seemed far more platonic, based on mutual admiration and respect than any physical desire. There is a suggestion that their relationship prior to this film might have held some intimacy, but it is clear that they do not trust one another, and that Holmes finds the concept of physical intimacy with her quite uncomfortable. I wasn’t particularly fond of the suggestion that she was in love with Sherlock, and disappointed by his rejection, but at the same time, he did in the end reject her, so I suppose I cannot complain too loudly.

At one point, Watson refers to her as Holmes’ muse, and I think this description works quite well within the confines of this film. Holmes clearly likes and respects Adler. He is clearly curious about her. But his interest in her rests on an intellectual level, not a physical (or even spiritual) one. She is an interesting character, whom he cannot figure out, and this vexes him, because he is used to knowing people more intimately than they know themselves — and this with only a single glance. Adler is a challenge. Sherlock Holmes does not love The Woman, but he does love the challenge she presents.

Holmes and Watson

There is a very interesting subplot running throughout the film, which, incidentally, is far more compelling than the actual plot of the film. Watson has become frustrated by life with Holmes and has decided to take a wife (i.e. Mary Morstan). Save for Mary’s back story, and that she wasn’t Holmes’ client, this plot is lifted directly from Canon. Readers will remember that Watson was quite put out with Holmes in SIGN: sick of his cocaine use and frequent black moods. Holmes, naturally, is quite upset by this, not wanting to lose his Watson to a woman (again directly lifted from Canon, as the reader will recall Holmes’ campaign to woo Watson back in SIGN — that is, once he’s realized Watson is falling for Miss Morstan).

There is a lot of tension between Holmes and Watson in this film, and it stems directly from Watson’s impending engagement. One gets the impression that Holmes is quite distraught over the prospect of losing Watson. And one gets the impression that Watson is waiting for Holmes to admit this; something, sadly, Holmes will never do. This is the grand love story of Canon (with Holmes eventually faking his death and disappearing from Watson’s life, not to return until after Mary’s death). It is quite delightful to see this play out on the big screen, even if we know Holmes’ attempts to sabotage Watson and Mary’s marriage is doomed to failure. Hopefully the sequels (and the film does set up for at least one) will remain true to Canon: kill off Mary and reunite Holmes and Watson.

Despite the tension between them, they spend the bulk of the film flirting with one another. At one point they refer to one another as a cock and hen. At another, Holmes fondles Watson through his trouser pocket, and then tells him “not to get excited”. They are exceptionally domestic, with Holmes specifically and intentionally referring to Baker Street as “our rooms” and to Gladstone as “our dog”. Then, towards the end of the film, Watson tells Holmes that he is gorgeous — this is followed by an awkward but lovely scene where Holmes and Watson sit side by side on a bed and Holmes tells Watson that he’s glad he has lived. There are numerous small scenes throughout the film which will easily lead the viewer to conclude that Holmes and Watson are desperately in love with one another, and that Holmes, at least, has come to realize the depths of his feelings for Watson.

One might be disappointed when Watson ends up proposing to Mary, but those familiar to Canon will know that Mary’s existence, however brief, does not hamper Holmes and Watson’s relationship.

Delightful Elements

There are a number of delightful things contained within this film. Even as a staunch Sherlockian, expecting the worst, I grinned throughout the film. The references to Canon alone should be enough to keep any Sherlockian happy.

There are numerous lines lifted directly from the stories: “It is a capital offence to theorize before one has data,” and “it was worth a wound…” and “my mind rebels at stagnation…” and “your chequebook is locked in my drawer…” and “you have the grand gift of silence, Watson…” and “Data, data, data! I can’t make bricks without clay,” are only a handful. Then there are the numerous nods to Canon and its adaptations: Watson’s bull pug, Watson’s limp, Watson’s wandering wound, Watson’s gambling problem, the bullet-hole V.R., Holmes in disguise, the pocket-watch deduction, Mycroft, Moriarty, Adler’s photograph, Holmes’ violin and the flies (a nod to the Rathbone era films), Holmes’ ability to speak French; the seventeen steps! The list goes on. I think I clapped with glee with each reference.

Then there are the sets and costumes, which, while at times were a little too gritty, were absolutely delightful, and really added to the atmosphere of the film. It was nice, too, to see a Holmes’ film with twenty-first century CGI and a larger-scale budget. Nothing was sparred in making this film look very, very pretty.

Quibbles

No film review would be complete without its quibbles, and this film has dozens. The most obvious, perhaps, is the plot, which was overly simple, not truly a mystery (at least, not worthy of a Sherlock Holmes mystery) and so overshadowed by fight scenes, explosions, and heavy-handed attempts at symbolism (the crow comes to mind), that by the time the film ends, one doesn’t particularly care about the resolution. I was ready to leave long before Holmes’ infamous “let me explain my reasoning to you, Watson,” scene.

I am not a Guy Ritchie fan. I have never liked his films. I think he is far too concerned with flashy effects and slow-motion fighting, and not at all concerned enough with story and character development to merit being called a competent director. I feel bad saying that, I do, but this film did nothing to redeem my opinion of him. It reeks of Guy Ritchie directing, and let me assure you that is a hindrance. The strength of the acting alone in this film could have overcome a shaky script. It cannot, however, overcome a shaky script and director.

Why then, do you ask, does this film warrant four out of five pipes? As I mentioned above: Watson. He really is that fantastic. And, of course, the Sherlockian fan service helped considerably.

So despite the film’s flaws, it is still a good film. It’s not a great Sherlock Holmes’ film, but it is good; enjoyable and entertaining. It is certainly one of the prettiest Holmes’ films I have seen to date. I leave, however, disappointed, because I suspect, with a better script and a different director, this could have been a great film. Certainly Downey and Law, like Rathbone and Bruce, or Brett and Burke/Hardwicke before them, are both more than capable of claiming the privilege of being recognized as this generation’s Holmes and Watson. I only wish I could have crowned them as such.

  1. JL82
    January 17th, 2010 at 09:23
    Quote | #1

    I never realized until I read these essays that Watson comments on how other men look. The one I remember is Captain Crocker, of Abbey Grange. He (Watson) certainly also writes a lot about Holmes’ physical traits, and prowess.

  2. OctoberHoliday
    January 17th, 2010 at 11:16
    Quote | #2

    JL82 :I never realized until I read these essays that Watson comments on how other men look. The one I remember is Captain Crocker, of Abbey Grange. He (Watson) certainly also writes a lot about Holmes’ physical traits, and prowess.

    Yeah, he’s always talking about his hands, and his eyes. Almost obsessively, really, like he can’t keep his eyes off them.

  3. JL82
    January 23rd, 2010 at 20:52
    Quote | #3

    Back to the movie: I think RDJ could be a particularly difficult Holmes for those of us who are used to Brett to adjust to. Brett is graceful, suave, elegant, and eloquent – yet also “physical” in his own way.

  4. Katie
    March 24th, 2010 at 06:15
    Quote | #4

    I’ve read through a lot of the comments on this review, and I’d like to make my position clear, so you might understand a bit more about the “new” fandom.
    I’d never had anything to do with Sherlock Holmes before I saw this movie. I knew who he was, sure, but I’d never read or seen anything before. I actually only went to see it because my parents dragged me along. Based on references that are made to Holmes frequently, I thought he was a stuck up, arrogant toff who was far too confident in his own abilities. I know now I was entirely wrong.
    After seeing the movie, getting completely excited by this take on a man I’d always seen as over the top, I read the Canon and found something new and wonderful I’d never taken notice of before. After reading many comments here that labelled this movie as (to put it bluntly) bad, I felt a bit unaccounted for, and thought I’d make my position clear. There are probably at least a few others out there that think like me, and decided to research after seeing the movie. And I’m not entirely pleased as being labelled as ignorant (by some).
    Thankyou for reading my long and opinionated comment. Please don’t get too angry at me, I only thought I’d get my view across. THankyou.

  5. admin
    March 24th, 2010 at 08:44
    Quote | #5

    @Katie
    I can’t speak to others’ comments, as everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I never said I thought this movie was bad. In fact, I quite liked it. I did, after all, give it 4 pipes (a very high rating on this site). I am personally thrilled that so many people are discovering Sherlock Holmes through this film. My big concern (and it is happening) is that there are quite a number of people who have decided the SH fandom begins and ends with this film. They are not willing to read the Canon. This saddens me because I feel they are missing out.

    I am delighted that this film inspired you to seek out the Canon, as that is what it should have done, and because you have sought out the Canon, I (and I doubt anyone else) don’t think you in any way ignorant. I am sorry if anyone’s comment here has upset you, but again, they are merely stating their opinion, and I’m sure they meant no offence. You are also entitled to your opinion, and I’m very glad you’ve shared it. It may be that “new” fans are given a bad rap even if they have gone to the bother of reading the Canon. I’m not entirely active in the SH “fandom” so I really have no idea what goes on outside of Sherlockian scholarship communities.

    I should also point out that everyone comes into SH a “newbie” regardless of their inspiration for doing so. Only those born during the 1880s have the right to call themselves “original” fans. For the rest of us, we are merely catching up on a 100+ year tradition. My own introduction to the stories was actually a television show (House MD), so I have absolutely no right to judge what has inspired others to read the stories. I sincerely hope you do not feel judged, especially not here.

  6. Katie
    March 25th, 2010 at 03:28
    Quote | #6

    @admin
    Thankyou. I understand that everyone has an opinion and is entitled to share it, I just think that sometimes people can be…a little harsh.
    I think many judge a book by it’s cover (pardon the pun) with the Canon, and almost no-one I know has read it because they think it “boring” and “old”. Sure it’s old, but it’s definitely not boring. I agree with you when you say they are missing out.

  7. Lefaym
    April 10th, 2010 at 03:59
    Quote | #7

    Thank you for sharing this review. I started to read canon a week or so before I saw the movie, and I see them as two different, but related, sets of characters. I write fanfiction for both, and I think the two require very different approaches.

    I’ve only just recently started watching Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, and although I’ve only seen two episodes, I’ve been completely blown away with his performance. The man has an amazing presence on screen. I think I prefer Jude Law’s Watson, however. 🙂

    • admin
      April 13th, 2010 at 08:18
      Quote | #8

      Jude Law’s Watson is one of the best Watson’s I’ve seen (although, once you’re done with Granada, go check out the Russian series), but I much prefer Brett’s Holmes to Downey’s Holmes. Jeremy Brett owned the character. He really just made Holmes his own. Sadly, Brett had a lot of mental health/health issues that I think stemmed from giving himself so completely to the character. He truly suffered for his art.

      Anyway, welcome.

  8. OctoberHoliday
    April 15th, 2010 at 15:22
    Quote | #9

    Hmm. . . seems like I have missed some action in my absense.

    Hello, Katie. Seems that you’re relatively new to this Sherlock Holmes thing. Welcome. I suppose I joined not long before you. Fun, isn’t it? I’m glad that you liked the movie and that it lead you here. You don’t have to tell me of course, seeing as it really doesn’t involve me, but what happened? It seems that you’ve had a run-in with the very unpleasant word ‘ignorant’.

  9. JL82
    April 24th, 2010 at 20:35

    @Cress

    Re: Adler. On close examination of the story, I am not sure Irene has ever actually blackmailed the King. It is simply that she has evidence of their affair and COULD do so. Note that Holmes says, “IF she were to produce these papers for blackmail…” That the men assume she will says even more about the misogyny of the times than if we had a woman character who was actually a blackmailer.

    Her statement that she has “a better man,” in reference to her middle-class husband is a pretty bold thing for a woman of that era to say, if you think about it, because it defies that society’s notions of what makes one person better than another. In fact, it rather parallels Holmes’ own comment that Adler is “on a very different level,” than the King, when of course, he means she’s superior. But at the same time, Adler’s seeming happiness in fairly respectable marriage to a simple solicitor makes me think that either she’s not the “adventuress,” she’s cracked up to be, or that she’s now settling down.

    So yes, I have some respect for her as a character. And I think that she is probably, to Holmes, a memorable opponent, and one that, moreoever, he doesn’t have to hate as he hates the really evil opponents like Milverton or Roylott. But I don’t believe he was in love with her.

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