Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Rachel McAdams and Mark Strong
This time last year I was watching Arthur Wontner play Sherlock Holmes for the first time in the 1931 British film The Sleeping Cardinal. Now the family have talked me into something a little more recent and modern, namely Robert Downey Jr playing Sherlock Holmes for the first time in the self titled Guy Ritchie movie from 2009. I tend to get burned by modern blockbusters but a few friends, especially within the steampunk scene, have spoken highly of this version, at least on some fronts. Now's my chance to find out if I need to shout at them next time I see them and ignore any further suggestions they might make. After all, when I think Robert Downey Jr, I think Tony Stark, not Sherlock Holmes. When I think Guy Ritchie, I think of how awesome his pictures were before he met Madonna, not of how he could turn the innovative gimmickry of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels into a Holmes movie. Well, the game's afoot!
There is gimmickry before we even get the title screen: slow motion and fast editing as Holmes and Watson stop Lord Blackwood from committing his sixth murder. That's mild stuff for Guy Ritchie though and things improve quickly. His version of Holmes's rooms at 221B Baker St are believable: quirky, dusty and disorganised, but not so much so that the great detective doesn't know exactly where everything is. Downey is quirky, dusty and disorganised himself as Holmes, which is refreshing, but he's still quite obviously himself. Much has been said of how this Holmes is a pugilist, but that doesn't bother me. Ritchie puts his start/stop editing to use effectively, by bringing the scientific method into his fight scenes. I was more impressed by quieter moments though, such as when Holmes deduces the history of Watson's girl and gets a glass of wine in his face for his trouble. He simply ignores it and gets on with his meal. It's beneath his concern.
So Holmes is a solid characterisation, an interesting take on the most portrayed character of all time. I like the gleam in his eye, the deceptive disorganisation and his playful nature. I didn't like the fact that in front of all of it was obviously Robert Downey Jr. Jude Law succeeds a little better on that front as Watson, though perhaps that's partly because I've seen a lot less of him in the past than I have Downey. He's not as quick as Holmes, naturally, but he's no bumbling fool in the vein of Nigel Green's approach to the role or those who followed him. It helps that Law is really a Londoner, thus a lot more believable in Victorian London than Downey, whose accent isn't quite what it should be. Downey is more fun to watch but too wild to buy into. At least he's a notably original creation, unlike Lord Blackwood, who is painted too closely from Hannibal Lector's cloth for my liking, Mark Strong also channelling the young Christopher Lee in his megalomania.
There's much to like here for those without firm preconceptions in what they expect from a Sherlock Holmes picture. The sets are superb, from grand visions like a nascent Tower Bridge to the little details of street life. This Victorian London is suitably dirty, from the streets to the sky via all sorts of locations in between, not least a particularly grimy jail. To ensure that we get the point, the tones used are suitably subdued, sometimes so dark that we can believe that they're lit by gaslight. Of course not all the sets are down and dirty. There are plenty more in upper class buildings and pseudo-Masonic lodges and they're just as solid. It certainly doesn't hurt to have a budget sometimes and this one had $90m to play with. I enjoyed the music, both the classical and the folk sides. There's frequent action, though to inconsistent effect (the boat scene and the finalé being far too predictable) and for every action scene there's another full of deductions.
Where it falls down is in being the first film in a deliberate franchise, something that Warner Bros obviously planned for all along. Thus we get a lot of Holmes and Watson but only a glimpse of a slew of other recognisable names. Lestrade gets a mere handful of scenes, Moriarty is seen only in shadow, Mycroft appears in name only and we see Mrs Hudson only once, early in the picture. We are given quite a lot of Irene Adler though, the one woman who outsmarted Holmes in Conan Doyle's stories. It's a shame that she's notably disappointing, with a promising introduction quickly devolving into a damsel in distress and a woman continually outmanouevred by others. I liked Eddie Marsan a lot, as Lestrade, but other notable actors get far too little screen time, especially James Fox and Geraldine James. Fox does get a good death scene at least and James returns as Mrs Hudson in the first sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
All in all, I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes, but mostly on the surface when the CGI wasn't too obvious or the action too clichéd. For the most part it looked right and it felt right, but it didn't allow us much opportunity to play along ourselves and try to figure things out before Watson. It instead used what little Guy Ritchie gimmickry it had to provide explanations to us along with whichever characters are on screen at the time. In short it's the ride you might expect rather than the sort of detective story you might want, though on that front at least it's a worthy one, with far more attention given to its setting than most. Downey and Law make it a fun and engaging ride and if Rachel McAdams is given a poor part to play with as Irene Adler, she does bring feminine charm into the testosterone filled proceedings. I'd have preferred a different film in a lot of ways, but I enjoyed this nonetheless and won't have too many qualms about watching the sequel.