February 17, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

There are plenty of things to like and plenty not to like in this Guy Ritchie adaptation of the famous Victorian detective. This review therefore will be mixed. The difficulty that Ritchie faces as any director does who takes on this type of material is that everyone has their ideal Holmes, their vision and version of the man, and very few are ready to relinquish that Holmes into the hands of the director. For me the closest to Holmes on television or film is Jeremy Brett's ITV Holmes, whose precision and sudden manias are very similar to how I see the books' intellectual force developing. That is a disclaimer that anyone writing this should start with- Holmes exists in our heads as much as on any script page and unlike say a character like Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon the material is well known enough that no director can hope to redefine him. With that in mind, I think we can evaluate the film.

The first thing to say about it is that this is no literary adaptation. Unlike Brighton Rock which adds a new perspective to the stories, Ritchie neither has the force of intellect nor imagination to do something startlingly new with the character. He has not got the discipline to follow an actual Holmes story and tell it from a different perspective: how about the villain's- there are plenty of sympathetic ones in Holmes whose stories would be interesting to tell. He invents instead an absurd story starring the Templars, magic etc- something worthy at times of the Da Vinci Code- a web made by charlatans. If he adds any ingredient to Holmes's character he inverts the argument of the story. Conan Doyle's character used the methods of science to unravel the mysteries of humanity- data, deduction and then finally proof- his readers were able to accept this process because they accepted it for the physical world, so why not the mental. Ritchie inverts that: in the film we are confident that Holmes can read motivations, but we need to have it proved to us that the world is not a grand conspiracy of mystical irrationality. The pity and perhaps the decline of modernity is represented by the fact that too many people are convinced of the Da Vinci Code and therefore need this film and others to tell them its not true- having said that it does leave you with the false if seductive impression that Victorian London was controlled by the templars- it undermines the magic but leaves the conspiracy- a thesis about as historical as the traditions the Victorians themselves invented.

Away from that, what Ritchie does therefore is take us less further inside Holmes's method, what made Holmes unique. That is a lessening factor in the film. Added to that is that there is too much action within the movie- Holmes is a boxer, a user of bartitsu and Watson is handy with a revolver- but most of the stories do not include that much action, they include discussion and thought as well. There is a reason for that- after a while too much action becomes boring, where you want to see a character arc, you get an arc of flame and once you've seen one of those, you've seen them all. The same thing could be said of romance- Ritchie does not do female characters well. His actresses work hard: Rachel McAdams does sexy with a smile, but there is not much else for her to do. Its hard as well to get from her character's uncomplicated and playful relationship with Holmes to Holmes himself, to his complications and his problems. Incidentally anyone from London will be instantly distracted as I was by the moment when she appears to run from Westminster to Tower Bridge in two minutes!

That last sentence encapsulates something that Ritchie does do: he and Robert Downey jr give us a complicated or semi-complicated Holmes. Jude Law gives us a Watson who is no dullard either. Downey's Holmes is an eccentric- a man who boxes and stays in his rooms for months. The only problem with this Holmes is that aside from some minor eccentricities it is hard to tell him from James Bond or from Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. In a sense the film's main problem is that it is hard to tell it from a James Bond film- the girl gets undressed less but apart from that the differences are minute. There are the same bangs and the same suspense. All the way through this I have struggled not to compare this to the book and it is impossible not to, but you cannot label a film as about Holmes and deprive him of moments of intellectual power (he has two in the movie that I counted and they are brief)- Ritchie needs to give us more of Holmes the brain and less of the brawn.

Lastly there is the period. The CGI department have been working overtime- they get the foggy lighting, they get the carriages and the congestion on the streets. Ritchie gets some of the anarchy and menace of London- at one point McAdam is robbed at knife point on an alley near Baker Street, something that is very realistic. What he doesn't get though is any sense of the Victorian mind. The mysticism is supposed to reflect spiritualism but the latter was not about magic so much as about talking to the dead. The characters behave in thoroughly modern ways- they do not have enough Victorianisms about them to make them realistic. I worked on a historical documentary once and was told that the thing people are most concerned about isn't the accuracy of the dates or the sentiments, but the accuracy of the clothes- who cares that no Victorian leader was a member of the Templars so long as the buttons on their jackets were accurately represented. To that audience, Guy Ritchie will have done superbly, for people interested in the past and not fashion, the film has more flaws.

Having said all of that, the film is enjoyable. Downey does a good job of portraying Holmes's eccentricities, Jude Law does a good job of getting Watson (indeed he might be the best Watson I've seen- he is afterall a young man and looks a plausible veteran and lady's man), McAdam does as well as she could given the part, the villains are alright if ludicrous. What is really missing is a dose of Holmes magic, something that doesn't make this a James Bond film with less sex and a more eccentric hero. The film is entertaining but it isn't much more than that- if you want a reasonable action film, with some nice quips, a good performance from Robert Downey jr and a lively though ridiculous account of Victorian London, go and see it. For more meaty fare, pass on to something else.


James said...

I agree with you (having for once seen the same film as you!) about Victorianisms, but I do feel it's worth praising the CGI: I've had my head buried in things Victorian London for the last x months, and the look, at least, rang very true. To be frank, I could happily have wandered away from the action of the film and just gone off to explore..

On the whole, I though the film a great deal of fun, without being anything more - and yes, after Jeremy Brett, you do want more: Brett's Holmes is a friend to the intelligent, whereas RDJ's appears, to my eyes, an overappreciated junkie and alcoholic.

James Higham said...

Interesting review. The moment I saw Guy Richie, I thought, "Agggggggh!" but it might be worth looking at.

Drunk Detective said...

I think you credit Guy Ritchie with too many plot points - he didn't write the script, so the banal women and weak plot can't be blamed on his own horrible imagination.

And I think you disregarded a little the movie's attempt to apply the ingenuity of Holmes to more than just the one-step-ahead deductions. I thought one of the smartest things of the movie was applying Holmes' intellect to things such as fight scenes and action scenes as well as expositional reflections.

Gracchi said...

James great response- perhaps I don't praise the CGI enough. I would say that RDJ gives a good performance though.

Mr Higham (to distinguish you from the other James)- I had the same reaction but I do think this is worth seeing.

Drunk Detective- perhaps that's true. My view in general is that the director is in a sense the 'author' of the film- afterall he can alter the script after the writer has finished it, he can choose the writer himself sometimes. It might be that Ritchie did not directly write the script, but he did approve it. If someone else did then they have taken one of the roles of the director from him- like Selznick used to do- and if so they I agree with you are responsible.

I wasn't so keen on the fight sequences. I had two issues with them

a. I thought they were a bit gimicky- Holmes's intelligence in the novels is not mainly physical, yes he is given physical attributes but they aren't a central part of his character in the novel as they are in the film.

b. If he could do that in the boxing ring etc- then why couldn't he do it other fights say in his encounters with the French henchman of Blackwood. The film switched this off and on.

c. Why do we always need to reduce the power to do mental things to physical prowess- Holmes's intelligence should be demonstrated by doing intelligent stuff like deducing what is going on, in a sense the power to predict the hurt he causes is merely another kind of physical power and furthermore a mystical one (which does not suit the rationalist detective).

I should add that I'm not criticising the film too much- it was entertaining just not much more.

Gracchi said...

That was three issues- I came up with the third as I wrote the comment!

edmund said...

it's far from a perfect film but i basicaly agree with all thep raise and disagree with some of the dissent.

i strongly agree with drunk detective's points (though the direct as author point is an impornt modficaton-particua when the director is so much more a big chesse as in this case)

i li8ke the lini on fight scenes and disagree (as i do weith simnilar critim of LOTR the TWin Towners)_ the nastureo f a novel is a fight scene will be quick and ellusive- a film is much stronger forum for this and less for others (like intellecual rambling) -it makes perfect sense that you'd have more violence as arguedd here. http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2009/12/sherlock-holmes.php

in fact my main critim would be is his not shown as having enromous phyiscal strength (he unbedns an iron bar in one story)

also while i also thought the conspriacy thing is a bit silly -uit's very sherkock holmisian- see moriatys control of all London's crime.

It's well over two occaison of inteleluc power even exempting the "fight" scenes ( i think wrongly) e.g when his kidnapped asnd knows where he is, when he works out it's acid burst it open, when he realises the man with his on off gf is an academic when he realises the garter8hjg rope will be there and looks for it etc etc

i think the bad tempred drug addict side is veyr well attested in the book and has not been properly done in previous tv/ film versions.

on the other handi also like james bond films!