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Sherlock Holmes: The Game Is Afoot

December 25, 2009

As we walked out of the theatre tonight after seeing Sherlock Holmes, we turned to each other and said, at the same time, “I kept forgetting that was Jude Law.” And then we laughed. But it’s true; watching Guy Ritchie’s movie, we had to remind ourselves just who that was playing Dr. Watson. Law does “tough guy” well, better than I’d expected, and as Holmes’s strong right arm, Law nails it. Great moustache, too.

When Jude Law gives the best performance in a film, you have to stop for a moment and take stock.

Sherlock Holmes is a strange blend of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Gangs of New York, From Hell and even Iron Man, but it works. Robert Downey Jr. is not as unconventional a Holmes as you might think; his sloppy Bohemian take on the detective is more akin to the original Conan Doyle stories than people realize. In the original stories, Holmes was a renowned bareknuckle fighter and martial artist, never wore the deerstalker hat and never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Ritchie and Downey went back to that original take, and then added their own upgrades.

But Downey here plays a very slight variation on Tony Stark, and it seems in some scenes that his heart isn’t quite in it. When he’s good, he’s very, very good, but when he’s bored he’s boring.

Law, on the other hand, reflects Doyle’s notion that these stories are told from Dr. Watson’s point of view. Watson is the voice of reason — a strange thing, considering he works alongside the supposed Lord of Logic. When Watson walks in on a loopy, obsessive Holmes carrying out a weird experiment with houseflies and a violin, the audience sides with the doctor, not with the detective. Watson’s repeated attempts to distance himself from Holmes’s lunacy inevitably end in him leaping to the detective’s aid. Indeed, he saves his skin in several scenes.

  • Plot: Holmes and Watson have caught and jailed Lord Blackwood, a satanic member of parliament who has been killing young women. Blackwood (Mark Strong) is sentenced to hang, and the sentence is carried out, but soon his tomb is found broken open and people believe he is on the loose, his dark powers raging. Meanwhile, Holmes’s old flame, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, Canadian) turns up with an agenda. There are conspiracies, lies and huge action scenes with big explosions. Later, Holmes fights Kurrgan.

There’s a lot more to the story, and it’s very densely plotted. While that’s a good thing — too many Hollywood films these days rely on cliche to drive story — there are moments when the story moves too quickly for Downey’s strange fake accent to get the point across. We had to discuss and analyze several key scenes before we had a complete sense of what had happened in the final act.

This is a weird, weird movie. Equal parts funny, frightening, violent and stimulating, it was a genuine surprise. I was expecting two hours of punching, kicking and sexing (as in the trailer up top there), but the detecting was front and centre … just presented in a new way.

It’s Ritchie’s first big Hollywood film, and he tried pretty hard to go Hollywood in it. This is my biggest beef: he uses too many oh-about-five-years-ago CGI tricks and slow motion flashbacks, and the film has a dated LXG look to it, complete with that white glow of digital backgrounds that I’ve mentioned before.

His digital Victorian London looks fine in quick scenes, but in wider shots things look like the beach in Atonement: fake, washed out, over-glare galore. And, for some reason, extras stand staring at the camera, posed like people in old photographs. It’s an odd choice, something that was done well in Gangs of New York but here feels forced.

But every time that sort of thing started to get to me, Ritchie’s gift for great moments came through. There’s one scene with a gypsy palm reader that had the audience in stitches, all because of the what-the-fuckness performance of Bronagh Gallagher (The Commitments). Correct what I said earlier: she’s the best actor in the film.

This was a satisfying fingers-in-the-popcorn adventure on a Christmas night, and I’m glad we went. I would not complain about seeing more of this Holmes.

Here are better, smarter thoughts on Sherlock Holmes.

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4 comments

  1. After reading this I really want to see it now. So… Avatar or Sherlock??? Decision decisions…


  2. Just got home from seeing this. Not bad. I’ll watch the very obviously coming sequel. Could be the start of a fun series.


  3. When you first posted on Twitter comparing it to the other films, I was a bit nervous (actually, very nervous). Reading through your review, however, I am now curious and want to see it. 🙂


  4. Very well said, sir. With enough reflection, I think Ritchie, Downey & Co could make a sequel something brilliant.



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