Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sidney Paget: Sherlock Holmes

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Note: As people comment here and in other places, I plan to update this with footnotes providing citations for various points (for and against). Because I love playing with Sherlockian research, even if I’m not that awesome at it.

To preface this, I have been a Sherlock Holmes fan for twenty-five years, since my father gave me a water-stained and dog-eared copy of the "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," containing the first twelve stories of the canon. I have read everything by Doyle, probably read an additional two dozen pastiches, listened to close to a hundred audiobook and radio versions, and watched a variety of television and movie renditions of the master detective. While I by no means consider myself a Sherlockian scholar, Holmes is certainly my first and most persistent fandom.

It has been with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I’ve been awaiting the Guy Ritchie vision of Sherlock Holmes. I planned to see it at a midnight showing on my birthday (because that would have just been awesome), but it turns out that the nearest theater to where we were in Tennessee was well over an hour away. So I waited until Sunday, when we got back. I had a terrible cold, and didn’t want to go out — until David asked if I wanted to go see the Sherlock Holmes movie.

Because that’s different, you see.

Interestingly (and to a great extent, flatteringly), a number of my friends have been waiting on my opinion of the film before going to see it themselves. They know of my obsession fanaticism interest in all versions of Holmes, and since I gave my brief review on Twitter, a number of people have contacted me asking for a more detailed review.

If, however, you just want the short version, here it is: I thought it was a very fun and enjoyable update to Sherlock Holmes that keeps to the core of the canon, although casual audiences might not realize that.

(Before I dive into a more detailed breakdown, I should point out that any detailed review is going to contain minor spoilers, and this is no exception. I’ll try to keep them down, but this might be better read after you’ve seen the movie or decided you’re not going to bother.)

I am one of those weird fans that actually like reboots. I don’t hold details of any particular fandom to be sacrosanct (or, more specifically, all details as sacrosanct, the ground of the so-called Purists). There are usually a few key points that attract me to a particular property, and toying with the details around that are just as likely to excite new interest in the property for me as it is to make me want to throw things at the screen. Now, granted, the line between "enjoyable reinterpretation" and "utter crap" is very thin — you can measure it as the distance between Transformers and Transformers 2 — but in this case, it succeeded. Rather than deconstructing the entire movie, let me pick a few points that most people won’t realize are actually canonical, and a couple of points that are particular sticking points for me.

?Ass-kicking: Some people have commented that Holmes isn’t a fighter, and that is just simply not true. There are repeated references in the canon to Holmes’ boxing ability, his martial arts ability, and the number of times that a stout stick got him out of a sticky situation. While Watson’s soldering skills and handiness with a revolver are often helpful to Holmes, it’s usually portrayed as him wanting someone to watch out for him, rather than any inability or inadequacies in hand-to-hand on Holmes’ part. Sure, elaborate choreographed fights aren’t present in the canon, but between a reluctance in Victorian literature (or at least, Conan Doyle) to go into a lot of detail into fights, and the fact that Guy Ritchie is directing it, I think the amount of fighting is appropriate and doesn’t detract from the core of Holmes. (I do wish that his internal monologue of how to most efficiently hurt people was applied to his deductive technique, but that’s a quibble.)

The Occult: Young Sherlock Holmes is probably the most egregious example of Holmes investigating apparently supernatural events, but it’s not the only one. The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire is the easiest title to come up with, but The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably the most well-known example of Holmes investigating the supernatural, where Holmes’ client investigates what he sincerely believes to be a freaking ghost-dog. Holmes ultimately refuting the occult is not only not unusual, it’s common. The fact that he does so again is refreshing, though I did confess that I wasn’t sure how it was going to be explained away until about halfway through the film.

Adler and Holmes: Ah, the original slash-fic. People have been hooking up Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes for over a century. Although she’s only featured in one story (although the movie references her meeting Holmes twice, but I think that’s counting both meetings between Holmes and Adler, not two different cases), the fact that she’s frequently shown to have some kind of relationship with Holmes is certainly not unusual. And even if you take it as not canonical, it’s still handled very well. I was honestly dreading an Adler/Holmes sex scene (primarily based on the clip of Holmes handcuffed naked to a bed), but it never happened. I found the relationship to be logical and consistent with my feelings about the characters.

Watson: Okay, let me digress a bit to deal with something. I respect the mountain of work that Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce did as Holmes and Watson in radio and film. I have listened to a number of the radio programs and watched some of the movies. But I hate hate hate what Bruce did to the character of Watson by turning him into a bumbling idiot. In the canon he is not only a good doctor, but also picks up quite a bit of deductive ability of his own (certainly more than Lestrade did). Further, he frequently clashes with Holmes, being the only person with enough strength of will to put up with Holmes’ bullshit. Jude Law knocks it out of the park, in my opinion.

Now, I was asked about the modernization of the dynamic between Holmes and Watson, making them much more joking and snarky than the canon. While I can see that point, I consider it something that needed an update. How two men who were close friends acted in Victorian England and how they act now is pretty different, and the "buddy movie" dynamic tells a lot about the characters and how they feel about each other without having to additionally explain Victorian male social dynamics at the same time.

Lestrade: My other point of concern was Lestrade, especially a point where he looks to be turning on Holmes. While Lestrade is pretty much an idiot, he’s also fiercely loyal, and becomes more and more trusting of Holmes later in his career (during which this film appears to be set — after Holmes has gained some notoriety for his cases, but before he fell off a cliff). Lestrade isn’t a complex character (primarily because he isn’t given a lot of lines in the canon), but he is more than juts the dumb cop that gives Holmes a hard time and rounds up the bobbies at the end to pick up the bad guy, and he’s given a little of that depth here.

Can it fit in the canon? Ultimately, this is a pastiche, and my test of whether a pastiche works for me is if I can envision it existing in the canon. I would have to do some research, but I think there are a couple of details that keep it from slotting easily into canon (mainly, I have to check on Watson’s marriages and how they relate to Holmes before he, again, fell off a cliff [1]). But if you take a dose of Watson as unreliable narrator, I think it’s possible.

Is Downey, Jr. Holmes? Jeremy Brett has been my metric for Holmes for a long time. I don’t think Downey is as utterly faithful to Holmes as Brett is — if anything, he’s playing Holmes through the lens of Gregory House (who is, himself, a pastiche of Holmes). But I love this Holmes, perhaps just as much because of his differences as in spite of them.

Footnote 1: I was right — Mary Morstan met Holmes previously in The Sign of Four before she’s engaged to Watson. However, James Boyle pointed out on my Facebook that Holmes does have a tendency to forget clients after a case. I’m not sure I totally agree, but I’d have to watch again to decide if it’s an error, if Holmes is legitimately forgetting her, or if he’s just being a dick.

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