The Sherlock Holmes Movie: Review

There has been a great deal of nonsense talked about the new Sherlock Holmes movie not being a faithful presentation of Holmes and Watson. In actuality, Jude Law is one of the great Watsons, adding to the virtues of his acting a face straight out of the Paget illustrations. It was eerie. Downey did a miraculous job of playing Holmes without playing any of his actor predecessors in the role. With help from the script, he even managed to convince one that the one factor that neither Holmes nor he could alter — height — was meant to be shortness, not tallness. It was a great pleasure to see him go to work, or rather, to see Holmes emerge, fully formed, from Downey. Downey and Law made a great team, a faithful depiction of the young Holmes and Watson having adventures.

(The only thing I would quibble about? The clothes and how the characters wore them. It was a little beyond the dabble in Bohemianism that would work for a couple of professional men. But of course, if Holmes and Watson had been scrupulous about not hanging around the house in their shirtsleeves, and wearing dressing gowns or smoking jackets to stay decently clothed around each other and Mrs. Hudson, modern audiences would have misread it, and Downey’s ressourcement approach would have run into Gillette again. Shrug. It worked. Except for one reviewer who saw this Holmes as a clothes horse. When he never wore a good clean boiled collar in the entire flick, and he was ruin on his hats, his shirts, and every other piece of garb that touched his body. Sure.)

Doyle made both Holmes and Watson good fighters, and taught Holmes several different styles of martial arts. So any reviewer who complains about this is a twit. Given that Doyle wrote an entire historical novel about the old bareknuckle boxing, blew up the house in the affair of the Engineer’s Thumb, raced steam launches down the Thames in The Sign of the Four, and had his big break by writing a novel claiming to be the true story of the Mary Celeste when that mystery was in the news, you can probably assume he’d have liked the action in this flick. So they can quit ripping on Guy Ritchie. Ritchie practically channels Stuff Doyle Would Like.

I loved the movie’s Lestrade, Eddie Marsan. Loved loved loved him. The toughness and determination, the irritation with Holmes’ gadfly ways, all presented in a man who misses some stuff but isn’t a bumbler. Constable Clarke is an original character, and he also is a lot of fun. (His name may come from Doyle’s historical novel Micah Clarke.)

Mrs. Hudson only appeared briefly, but Geraldine James played one of the best and most Victorian Hudsons ever. Mary Morstan lived up to her billing by Doyle, played as a kind, loving, and formidable lady of unusual beauty by Kelly Reilly. Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler was fun, although you have the typical costumer’s indecision as to whether they should constantly show or hide her curves when she’s running around in men’s clothes.

(She was perhaps the most criticized member of the cast in reviews, because she wanted to play Adler without chewing the scenery, and most people wanted Adler to be the woman of their romantic fantasies, oozing sex appeal and wuv at every moment. I’m not sure how they imagine their Adler not scaring Holmes away. Especially if she’d tried that when there was danger afoot. There’s even criticism that Adler isn’t souuuuulful enough. What?? The minority criticism was that she did have chemistry with Holmes, with those who prefer Holmes to have a strictly intellectual appreciation for The Woman. Well, folks, that’s not the option chosen by this movie; don’t blame the actress. Either way, what’s shown on screen is a good deal more chaste than what’s shown in movies following the lead of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It’s a surprising moment of taste in our show-it-all times. My only criticism is that she’s not a contralto, but I still can work with that. But yeah, she probably needs to chew some scenery next time, or whatever it takes to bring out the opera diva in her inner Irene. Like that fight scene with Holmes that’s in the trailer but not in the movie.)

The movie showcased these women and others with a very Doyle (or Watson!) appreciation of them, each having their own strength and beauty and style. Just as with Doyle, we tend to get this depicted in short flashing scenes only. But in a world where actresses today seldom get to play any kind of decent role, I think these actresses feel lucky to have short bursts. We’ll see what happens next time.

The villains and non-heroes were interesting, as they should have been. One particular thug is allowed to be a real character as well as physically impressive; I hope to see his actor again. (And maybe this character too.) The main villain is played by an actor who obviously could have done a good Holmes himself. I think there were a few occasions where the filmmakers deliberately allowed you to realize this. :)

As for the movie, I must say that it was not as blowy-uppy as I had been told. It was a fun script and a clever one, with plenty going on. The gimmicky things about the presentation were not overused; they were played when fun, and kept back when not. I appreciated that. The action portions were lurid, but heck, Doyle loved a good lurid fight or chase or villainous scheme. Although the central conceit of the villain’s scheme was no secret to any anime viewer, it was kept adequately hidden. (In a way not quite a “fair play mystery” — but Doyle wrote before that concept emerged, and “fair play” began out of frustration with him.) But even that turned out to be cover for What Was Really Going On, and done for the benefit of other characters, not us. Frankly, every time I began to roll my eyes, the movie proved that it knew what it was doing. It was a lot of fun, and not stupid.

I could have done without London being quite so gritty. You can’t just show dirt without showing the struggle of hardworking Victorians (like Mrs. Hudson) against that dirt. (Just as you can’t just show Bohemian young Englishmen without showing that their generation was into morals and city reform.) But it was a valid choice, and set the scene that this was more a “Jack the Ripper” London than a cozy one. (Though I couldn’t believe the number of people who’ve claimed in reviews that nobody’s ever done a gritty Victorian London movie. Obviously not very versed in movies….)

I do have some accent issues. Other than Irene Adler, who is from New Jersey, and the American ambassador, everybody is supposed to be native English. Of course the English actors don’t have to worry, and Downey’s accent is fairly solid; but some of the actors slipped back and forth across the Atlantic from scene to scene. It wasn’t anything hideous or laughable, but it was noticeable.

The music by Hans Zimmer is a great pleasure. Any score that allows me to listen to cimbalom for long periods of time is a good score. The violin pieces were well-played, as is fitting for literature’s most famous amateur of the violin. There was also a brief but clever use of the Dubliners singing “The Rocky Road to Dublin” as a sort of soundtrack for London’s public culture. (I say ‘clever’ because that particular style of fast playing emerged from emigration to Victorian London, much as bluegrass emerged from various old-timey regional traditions being blended together by playing after work at northern factories.) It also works as a soundtrack to Holmes’ hyper side at work in that London, constantly on the hop but still under control.The music by Hans Zimmer is a great pleasure. Any score that allows me to listen to cimbalom for long periods of time is a good score. The violin pieces were well-played, as is fitting for literature’s most famous amateur of the violin. There was also a brief but clever use of the Dubliners singing “The Rocky Road to Dublin” as a sort of soundtrack for London’s public culture. (I say ‘clever’ because that particular style of fast playing emerged from emigration to Victorian London, much as bluegrass emerged from various old-timey regional traditions being blended together by playing after work at northern factories.) It also works as a soundtrack to Holmes’ hyper side at work in that London, constantly on the hop but still under control.

I don’t recommend the movie for young kids, because there’s a lot of scary stuff and rough fighting, and Irene does a lot of Implying that she and Holmes have slept together in the past. Also, some skin is shown, but not anything explicit. If you’re worried about magic in flicks and want the Occult shown to be a Bad Thing as well as Stupid, this is your movie. But you have to wait till the end for villains to get. And no, Holmes is not okay with Adler performing criminal acts, and no, the filmmakers don’t show this as something likely to end well for her. The same is true for a lot of stuff in this movie. Heck, Holmes in the stories is often a cautionary example. But no, they’re not going to come right out and say, “Gosh, all this is so self-destructive! Holmes, tell everyone not to do drugs or stay up late or sleep with crazy fast women who steal things!” If your kids have read the unabridged books and stories, though, they’re probably old enough for this flick. Use your judgment, basically.

This movie does set two conditions that are not adapted from the books; but they are not used haphazardly. It’s an alternate Holmes world, where “The Sign of the Four” has never taken place yet Watson met Miss Mary Morstan anyway. Meanwhile, Irene Adler has been running around as the kind of adventuress I thought “adventuress” meant when I was a little kid reading the first few paragraphs of “A Scandal in Bohemia”. (Her marriage with Godfrey Norton didn’t work out.)

(All fanfic by men about Irene Adler either kills Norton, makes him a brute who beats her, or otherwise makes her single again in jigtime. So don’t blame the poor scriptwriters. They too were caught in Irene’s allure.)

As for pretty much everything else not in the Canon of the stories and novels but proposed onscreen, you may look to the Writings about the Writings, the Great Game. In short, you may blame Sherlockians and Holmesians, and specifically the Annotated Holmes of Baring-Gould and the new Annotated by Les Klinger. So scroll down no further, if you don’t want to know.

The most important Sherlockian concept, and perhaps the best implemented, was the infamous deduction that Watson must be a gambling man, because he kept his checkbook locked up in Holmes’ desk. We do know from “A Study in Scarlet” that he tended to spend money freely, but there’s no real reason to blame gambling. It was London. There were shows and public balls and a thousand things to buy, as well as restaurants and pubs that a single man could use to get his three squares a day. Likewise, there’s no reason to believe that anyplace in the apartment had a more secure lock than Holmes’ desk, which was no doubt expensively protected for his work’s sake. But the actors and script used the gambling idea as a door into Watson’s character, to show that he was a man with failings and a craving for risk, as well as estimable qualities. It has never really worked in the body of fanfic, professional or otherwise; but here, it works.

The other inspired riff on the Game is the bullpup. One Sherlockian opined (nasty mans!) that the bullpup Watson was keeping (only mentioned once in A Study in Scarlet, and probably referring to a pistol) had been poisoned by Holmes in an experiment; and a dying dog is indeed finished off by poison in the stories. In this movie, the bullpup is a longtime denizen of the rooms at 221B; and while Holmes does include him in his experiments, he never does the dog any harm. Awww.

I liked this movie. It was fun and clever, with a good heart. It didn’t hate its subjects or the audience, and it didn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth. It left the door open for sequels. And it even had awesome end credits, which I appreciated. (There was a lady on the crew named Windibank!! How Doyle!) I would like to see it again.

(The amusing thing is that, although many reviewers seem to determined to say nasty, clueless things about this movie, they still can’t resist telling people to go. The other amusing thing is watching reviewers warn Holmes purists against things that the real purists will love. Others claim to be fans of the books, yet object to situations which the books created, like Holmes’ dragging his feet against Watson getting married and moving out! Still, a surprising number of movie reviewers have revealed their Baker Streetcred.)

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “The Sherlock Holmes Movie: Review

  1. Thanks for this review, you’ve waylayed my fears that the movie was going to go the way of League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I definitely want to see it now. Back in middle school I happened across The Complete Sherlock Holmes at a garage sale for 50 cents and gobbled it up, and although I haven’t revisited the stories in a couple of decades (shame!), I’ve retained enough to recognize some of the big reviewers didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. The final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty took place on top of a waterfall for crying out loud.

  2. Joy

    I saw the movie last night, and I felt like I had you in the back of my mind the whole time, commenting. I’m glad my back brain knows you so well. I was really excited to find out what you thought of the movie. L and I loved it.

  3. EegahInc: Yeah, we dodged a bullet on this one. I do sympathize with the reviewers who were apparently hoping for a quiet and pretty Vic-flick, because sometimes you want that in the winter. But apparently, that’s Young Victoria. :)

    Joy: You’re being polite enough not to say that I’ve ranted at you for years about all sorts of Holmes stuff. :)

  4. Yes! Something I can suggest to my husband!
    <3 Sherlock.

  5. The movie was dreadful. Bad acting, bad writing and woeful direction. The characters neither looked nor behaved as they should. It bore no resemblence to Holmes whatsoever. Very poor film, not recommended!

  6. JakeK

    I liked the way it was shot. The actresses were way over made up for Victorian ladies. And there were few roles for women over that age of 30. I know, that should be expected, but still I couldn’t help wondering at how the actors (Downey and Law) were cast with love interests who were still in their 20′s. Must be nice to be a guy, I guess. Wonder what happened to actresses their own age?

    • The way Hollywood treats actresses shouldn’t happen to a dog. Women actually had it somewhat better in the old days, there! There aren’t that many good roles for any woman, and it’s a crock.

      But then, most of what Hollywood does today is self-destructive and not profit-productive.

      • Amen.

        Even public school kids can count how many “older” women there are around, if they can even think of them….

        See also, most music. Country-Western allows older women, but even pop country has a bunch of…what’s the phrase…. “poptarts”?

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