A few weeks ago, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows came out. While it’s not the Sherlock Holmes production most of my friends were anticipating — that would be the second season of the BBC’s Sherlock, which began airing on BBC1 yesterday — it’s the Sherlock Holmes event I was most anticipating.
Don’t misunderstand. Much as I liked Sherlock, I didn’t love it (the series peaked with “A Study in Pink,” I thought), and though I’m anxious to see it I’m content to wait for it to air on Masterpiece in May rather than acquire it through other means.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows reteams Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law with director Guy Ritchie for a sequel to their 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, and I went to see it yesterday.
Two years ago, Sherlock Holmes foiled a sinister plot by Lord Blackwood and a society of cultists to assassinate Parliament. Now, as Watson is about to be married to the lovely Mary Morstan, Holmes’ investigation of Professor James Moriarty, one of Britain’s leading intellectuals and a personal friend of the Prime Minister, nears its climax. A series of anarchist bombings on the Continent have increased tensions France and Germany, raising the risk of war. Holmes believes that these bombings are connected to the death of a respected surgeon, and then Holmes foils a murderous attack on a Gypsy fortune teller by a hired Kossack. But then Holmes makes several miscalculations — he thinks he can keep Watson and his new wife out of the game, then he attempts to foil a bombing — only to have Moriarty outplay him. Soon, Holmes and Watson are on the run through Europe, and there is an assassin targeting a peace conference at Reichenbach in Switzerland…
Now that I’ve typed that out, the film makes more sense.
The mistake I made two years ago when I saw Sherlock Holmes was in trying to outthink the movie. I kept thinking that I could figure out what was going on, that I could work out the puzzles before Holmes. I don’t know what made me think this — Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were never Encyclopedia Brown — but it also had the unfortunate effect of making me enjoy the film less because I wasn’t engaging with the film as a film. This time, I decided I wasn’t going to try to figure out where the film was going or worry about any of the deductions; since I knew they were all going to be explained at the end and they would probably rest on things we, in the audience, hadn’t noticed, I’d be better off accepting the film as it was.
As a result, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows was, to me, the batshit insane Sherlock Holmes story because, by taking it in on a visceral level, I was deliberately not connecting anything in my head.
It all does connect in the end, and yet I’ll still stand by that assessment. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is batshit insane.
The story isn’t original. As you can tell from my summary above, it draws heavily on “The Final Problem” (and it does, in fact, quote from Doyle’s story on several occasions, including “the best and wisest man I have ever known”). But the story also reminded me of Nick Meyer’s The Seven Per-Cent Solution and some of Laurie R. King’s work (notably, O Jerusalem and The Game), particularly with Mycroft, international relations, the threat of war, and Holmes becoming swept up into it. (Also, there are some similarities in plot to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, but I won’t mention that if you promise not to notice, even though I kinda like the movie while most other people hate it.)
However, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows has some definite advantages working in its favor.
First, Jared Harris is one of the best Moriarty portrayals ever, and any time he shares the screen with Downey is a delight. He’s cool, he’s calm, and he’s totally depraved. Yes, he’s clearly the Napoleon of Crime, but his motives make sense. He’s not evil for evil’s sake. He has his goals, and he happens to have the intellect and the resources to achieve them.
Second, Noomi Rapace is hawt. No, more than hawt. She is one of the most stunning women I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen the Swedish Dragon Tattoo movies, so I really have no idea who she is, but she was great fun to watch. For some reason I kept expecting her character to die, only she didn’t. I was impressed that the film didn’t go the “Holmes Girl” route that I feared; she’s really just another in the line of the many female clients that Holmes has helped in his career.
Third, I doubt that the battle of wits between Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls has ever been better portrayed (and has there ever been a chess match on film as tense as the one here?), and the tumble over the falls was astonishing. It wasn’t unexpected — when Reichenbach was mentioned early in the film I knew this is where the film was heading — but it was moving. Here’s where Guy Ritchie’s tricks with time and movement worked. The slow-time shot of Holmes and Moriarty falling through the mist, the look of anger and astonishment on Moriarty’s face and the serene acceptance on Holmes’ face, was so beautifully done that I was moved. Suddenly I knew how the readers of the Strand felt in December of 1893 as their beloved hero fell to his death. I actually shed a few tears.
Fourth, I loved Stephen Fry’s Mycroft Holmes. He’s not as stately as Charles Gray was in the Jeremy Brett series, and he’s more active than Doyle’s character, but he has a great rapport with Downey and Law, and I love how he calls Sherlock “Shirley.”
The acting is top-notch. The direction is great fun. But I don’t know that it’s a better film than the first Sherlock Holmes. The only thing that really makes it different is the story; there’s not a lot new that Ritchie, Downey, and Law bring to the material. It’s nice that the film moves beyond London to the Continent, but the film also loses something in doing so — it loses London, and London is as much a character in the Sherlock Holmes canon as Gotham City is a living character in Batman.
If there is to be a third film — Holmes survives Reichenbach in the Canon, after all — I’m not sure where it should go. I’d might’ve suggested an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles but 1) the scope of the story is too small for Downey’s interpretation of the character, 2) the first film hits the faux-supernatural buttons of HOUN, and 3) the world doesn’t bloody need another adaptation of HOUN. It should springboard from the premise of “The Empty House” — Colonel Sebastian Moran is a loose end — but I don’t know where it should go from there.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows was great fun and, despite some quibbles with pacing, one of my favorite films of 2011.