It only took a week for me to get to the theater to see Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes in the rather unimaginatively titled Sherlock Holmes. But yesterday being New Year’s Day, with nothing else pressing, I went to the local movieplex in the afternoon, thinking I would miss the thronging crowds.
Alas, I misjudged that completely. The theater was packed. For a movie in its second weekend, on two screens, to have a packed showing in mid-afternoon, bodes well, I think.
I was skeptical many months ago. I’d seen some set photos of Downey as Holmes, and I wasn’t that taken by them. Downey looked too… well… scruffy. Holmes was always so fastidious, to judge by Sidney Paget and Frederic Dorr Steele. (Yes, someone other than Paget illustrated Holmes. Steele doesn’t get half the respect he deserves, in my opinion.)
I sat down, no popcorn, and waited for the movie to unspool.
And frankly, I thought it was wonderful.
Considering how little Downey fits any physical vision I’ve had of Holmes in my life, it’s amazing how completely Downey embodies Holmes.
Take Jeremy Brett, for instance. His Holmes was the man of logic and reason. But that wasn’t the entirety of Holmes, and I think that people who only know Holmes through television and film miss that.
Holmes was also a man of action. Consider the early chapter of A Study in Scarlet where Watson names off the weapons and martial arts that Holmes knows. Or some of the action of The Sign of the Four where Holmes chases all over London. Or The Hound of the Baskervilles, where Holmes goes head to head with a fiendish hound, and then confronts the villain on a bog.
And, if you judge by the trailer, you would think that this Holmes, the man of action, is the only Holmes that is seen in Sherlock Holmes, running around with his fists, getting into swordfights, beating up fiendish thugs and henchmen.
And yet! The Holmes of reason and logic is still there! Director Guy Ritchie finds some very interesting ways of showing that as he gives Holmes some fantastic scenes of deduction. There are long periods where it appears, to all outward appearance, that Holmes is doing absolutely nothing — only then Holmes comes out and explains all the things that you saw on screen and what they mean and you’ll go, “Well, damn!”
And Jude Law’s Watson! This isn’t Nigel Bruce’s idiot. Yes, Watson is going to look a little slow, a little thick alongside Holmes, but this Watson is right there with a revolver, and he’s clearly no idiot. He notices things, he gets involved in the case, he’s a capable friend and companion.
There were even Mary Morstan scenes, and they were fabulous. She’s not really a character in the Canon after The Sign of the Four (and clearly SIGN didn’t happen in the movie’s version of Holmes’ history), and it was nice to see that she had some real presence here. (One of my favorite stories with Mary Morstan is Anthony Boucher’s “The Adventure of the Bogle-Wolf,” where Holmes, out of his mind on cocaine, pays the Watsons a visit while Mary is babysitting a neighbor’s child. And Holmes, strung out high as a kite, pays rapt attention to the story of Little Red-Riding Hood, resulting in a bizarre series of deductions that confuse the child to no end.) And, of course, Kelly Reilly was stunning to look at.
The only weak bit of casting, in my opinion, was Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler. She didn’t seem credible opposite Downey and Law.
The story, to my surprise, is very Doyle-esque. A series of ritual murders are solved by Holmes, and Lord Blackwood, the leader of the cult, is sentenced to hang. This is an early Holmes, and after the solution of the case he spends his days in Baker Street drugged out of his mind, and when Blackwood is executed it appears that he has risen from the grave to commit even more murders. Meanwhile, Irene Adler comes to Baker Street with a missing persons case and, curiously, the two cases — the apparent resurrection of Lord Blackwood and Adler’s missing person — appear to have some fiendish connection. Holmes has battled the apparent supernatural before — The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The Devil’s Foot,” “The Sussex Vampire” — and Sherlock Holmes is very much in the vein of those stories.
There’s a marvelous evocation of the Baker Street rooms. I wanted a shot of the stairway, because I wanted to see if it was truly seventeen steps. (Yes, it’s seventeen steps to Holmes and Watson’s rooms.) Holmes firing the revolver at the plaster! Holmes with all of his strange chemical experiments! Holmes with his untidy correspondence! Holmes with his absurd filing system! The details are right!
It is long, though, and the story drags a little. I wasn’t bored with the film, but I was trying to outthink Holmes and put the pieces together myself, which may have contributed to my sense that the film wasn’t moving forward. The film is serious when it needs to be. It is hilarious when it needs to be, too. The direction makes the film work; Ritchie hides things from the audience so that Holmes can show Watson all the things he sees, and when the camera pulls back, you’ll go, “Wow.”
This is the Sherlock Holmes movie I have waited my entire life to see. Everything I wanted — the deduction, the action, the sheer visual flair — is here. This is the world that Vincent Starrett wrote of in his poem “221B” where “it is always eighteen ninety-five.” Sherlock Holmes was a fantastic evocation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters, and I look forward to seeing more adventures of Downey and Law as Holmes and Watson in the future.
The only thing I regret? There’s not a novelization!
Watson should have found it recorded in his notebooks that in the autumn of 188x, Mr Sherlock Holmes did match wits with Lord Blackwood with the fate of the Empire in the balance. Yes, I would have absolutely bought a novelization of Sherlock Holmes, as long as it were written as though it were a Watsonian text.
Alas and alack.
Still! The game is afoot, and Sherlock Holmes is wonderful. :holmes: