Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Movie 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009)

Back in January, having heard the criticisms against 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009) I produced a posting arguing that a lot of people's expectations of what the Holmes stories are about are based on misunderstandings of these stories and often on the misapprehensions or choices of directors and actors who have portrayed the character throughout the 20th century.  This posting can be found at:  It was really not until the 1970s that the recognition that Holmes was a drug addict was even allowed to be hinted at; 'The Seven Percent Solution' (1976) movie is a turning point in this respect.  The key error people make is how old Holmes is. Partly I think they are misled by the Sidney Paget illustrations that appeared when the Holmes stories featured in 'The Strand' periodical.  Holmes is tall (this is one element in which Downey Jr. falls down) and lean and naturally wearing clothes that by the 20th century look old fashioned.  He is a drug addict and lives an unhealthy life, but he does not really appear to be a man in his fifties, which is right as he does not reach 50 until 1904.  As I noted in January at the time of the events shown in of 'A Scandal in Bohemia', the first short story, set in 1888, Holmes is only 34; by 1891 when the current movie is set he is supposedly 37.  It has been argued that Robert Downey Jr. was too young to play Holmes, but at 44 in fact he is a touch old.  Some commentators, notably Laurie R. King, argue that Holmes was born sometime 1863-8 which would make him even younger, between 23-28 in 1891.  However, the standard assumption that he was born 6th January 1854, seems to work.

Anyway, I finally got around to watching 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009) and enjoyed it so much that I viewed it twice within 24 hours.  Yes, there is action in it.  Again, though, this is something you would expect from a movie honouring the original stories.  Holmes often carries and uses a revolver but is also noted to be skilled in singlestick, fencing, bare-knuckle boxing, and bartitsu combat.  He is often shown haring around London or rural England in pursuit of the criminal.  Possibly the most famous story, 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (1901/2) which is set before 1891, shows Holmes living rough and charging around Dartmoor suggesting real vigour.  So, as in the Conan Doyle stories, this latest movie shows Holmes both as deductive and a man of action, and using the technique from the 'CSI' television series, shows him combining these two traits and constructing events in his mind and then following them through, notably during a bare-knuckle boxing match he is fighting in.  This CSI slow motion approach is also used in the way it is in those series, to show how Holmes reconstructs what went on previously using the evidence left behind.

I have likened this movie's relationship to Conan Doyle's stories as being like that between the James Bond movies and the Ian Fleming novels.  As the Bond movies do, occurrence from across the canon are referenced.  Many incidents from the Holmes stories appear for fans to spot in this movie, such as the scratches around the key hole on the pocket watch, seeking to control flies using notes plucked on his violin and Holmes shooting the initials V.R. (for Victoria Regina) into the wall of his room.  Despite being a little short, Downey Jr. seems to combine the switch between Holmes when he is at his sharpest and when he is a wreck very well.

Jude Law who plays Dr. Watson could easily have made an excellent Holmes in this movie.  Eddie Marsan, who has long portrayed Londoners on the borderline of legality is now just right to portray Inspector Lestrade.  Alongside numerous British actors (notably James Fox and Geraldine James as a rather tall Mrs. Hudson) the viewer is aware of elements that have been included to woo an American audience.  Notably the USA is portrayed as being under threat from Lord Blackmoor (played wonderfully by Mark Strong) planning to reclaim the lost British colonies.  This leads to one element in the movie which I felt jarred which is his claim that the USA is weak in 1891 from the civil war, despite the fact that the war had ended 26 years earlier.  The American ambassador is murdered and the chief female protagonist is Irene Adler (described as 'the woman' by Watson), who appears in 'A Scandal in Bohemia' and is an American (born in New Jersey) as shown in the movie.  She is supposedly born in 1858 making her 33 by 1891 (Rachel McAdams who plays her in the movie is 32), but, for example in the 1984 ITV dramatisation of the story she is played by Gayle Hunnicutt who was 41 at the time, though seemed older.  Hunnicutt is actually an American but you could not have told it from her portrayal of Irene Adler.  These are ways of drawing the American audience into something that might look parochially British, but, in general, they are not too out of step with Holmes stories.  Conan Doyle seems to have viewed the USA with suspicion and often in his stories sinister criminals originate from there as in 'A Study in Scarlet' (1887), 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men' (1905) and 'The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone' (1927).

Lord Blackwood is a new invention for Holmes stories.  However, I am not one of these people who never wants a story that does not adhere strictly to the original author's stories.  In the case of Sherlock Holmes numerous authors including Michael Dibdin, Nicholas Meyer, Bert Coles, Mitch Cullin and June Thompson among others, have produced pastiches of Holmes stories some of which have been filmed or made into radio dramas.  In the latest movie, a new story is fixed firmly in a very Conan Doyle setting.  Professor Moriarty does appear (in shadow as do all the best villains) and it is likely we will see more of him in the sequel that is apparently underway.

Right, so those are three elements that I enjoyed about the movie: the references to the original canon, the portrayal of Holmes's deductions and the action.  I also like that Guy Ritchie is the director.  His movie work is erratic (though occasionally, as here, shines) but one thing he truly loves is London, making him ideal for this movie.  Of course, much of London portrayed in the movie is computer generated, but the quality of the technology is such that now your mind barely registers that it is not real.  It is put to the full with Holmes and Watson charging through a range of locations from the headquarters of a Freemason-like organisation in the West End to a shipyard and a butchery warehouse along the Thames in East London; there is even a visit to a wonderfully gothic High Victorian cemetery.  The climax of the movie runs from the Palace of Westminster to the incomplete Tower Bridge (which was built between 1884-94, so was probably at the close to completion stage on the outer structure, as shown in this movie set in 1891).

The other thing I like about the movie is that it touches on themes that fascinated the Victorians themselves, the gothic and rational scientific thought.  Though gothic writing had come to the fore in the early 19th century (Jane Austen satirised it in 'Northanger Abbey' (1817, though written originally 1797-8)), it was still a staple of popular fiction in the 1890s.  Holmes is often shown as counteracting rather hysterical theories that seem informed by gothic writing notably in 'The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire' (1927), 'The Adventure of the Devil's Foot' (1917) and in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'.  This seems a little ironic given Conan Doyle's later firm beliefs in spiritualism.  In the 2009 movie Lord Blackwood makes it appear that he has supernatural powers with the intention of whipping up support for his coup d'etat.  His father, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Rotheram, is part of a secret society which believes in the efficacy of black magic.  Blackwood's abilities are in fact enabled through bribery and sophisticated technology, notably poisons and a nerve-gas releasing machine activated by electro-magnetic pulses.  Holmes's appreciation of the scientific developments enables him to disprove Blackwood's claims to mystical powers.  Holmes is often shown experimenting in his room with chemicals.  Thus, in this movie we see two sides of Victorian culture: the gothic horror imaginings and the rational scientific/engineering advances.

This may not be the greatest movie ever, but as a piece of entertainment I found it thoroughly enjoyable, with a wide range of interesting characters and a story which combined both action and mystery.  The sign of a good murder mystery is that you want to go back and see it again knowing the outcome.  Blackwood appears to be killed in this movie, which countered my expectations that he would escape, so to a good degree my expectations were confounded, which is always refreshing especially from a Hollywood movie.  I know I have given away a load about this movie, but I do recommend going out and renting it.  I look forward with anticipation to the sequel.

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