Instapundit and John Nolte are quite right: the new Sherlock Holmes movie was better than we had a right to expect from the trailers. We were led to anticipate a fun, mindless action comedy – a sort of reprise of Iron Man in Victorian drag, with Robert Downey Jr. in full scenery-chewing mode.
I would have enjoyed watching that movie just fine, thank you. I’ve read the entire Holmes canon, but I don’t worship it any more than Arthur Conan Doyle did, and having Guy Ritchie reprocess it into a mere popcorn flick wouldn’t particularly have bothered me. But…to my pleased surprise, Ritchie aimed for — and achieved — something much better.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. The script was heavyhanded and stupid in spots, though no worse than par for an action movie and light-years better than the crap James Cameron was shoveling in Avatar. Rachel McAdams was, as another reviewer noted, only poorly integrated into the main plotline. Ritchie overdid the sepia-and-grime thing a bit in the cinematogaphy. And there was barely a line of the villain’s dialogue you couldn’t see coming.
Still. These are minor defects compared to what the movie gets right, and how it challenges Holmesians to rethink their comfortable and somewhat stultified image of the great detective.
This movie goes back to canon and presents Doyle’s original Holmes from a different angle than the Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett performances. The Holmes we have become used to from later interpretations is sort of Holmes-as-Vulcan, the Mr. Spock of the gaslight era; cool, cerebral, controlled, a bit disdainful. Forgotten in the Holmes-as-Vulcan version is that the original Holmes was an eccentric drug addict who went to pieces in the absence of a degree of mental stimulation ordinary life could not afford him. Also forgotten is that he was written as a man of tremendous physical energy, a boxer and martial artist who relished describing his victory in a brawl (The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist).
I would bet serious money that Robert Downey Jr. read the entire canon, or at least most of it, in preparing for this role. I would bet more serious money that Ritchie gave him wide interpretive latitude and that some of the best lines in the film were ad-libbed from deep within character. Because Downey’s performance is right. It is truthful to the original in a way that the Holmes-as-Vulcan version could not be.
This was not, as in Iron Man, the actor drawing a thin layer of Tony Stark over his own personality and mugging outrageously at a camera we are at all times fully aware of; it is the actor fully inhabiting the character and, for all the surface showiness of the action, portraying that character with craft and subtlety and restraint. Downey demonstrates that he can act.
All the positive reviews have noted, correctly, that Jude Law’s Watson is a tremendous asset to the film. As important as his own performance was that he enabled Holmes to be Holmes. The repartee and occasional friction between them propels the film as effectively as its plot. I want to also note that Kelly Reilly, as Watson’s intended, steals a couple of scenes not with her fragile physical beauty but with a steely mental toughness rather at odds with it.
The negative reviews have been entertaining. Predictably, the New York Times reviewer sneered at the movie, dismissing it as “laddish”. The common objection from the naysayers seemed to be basically that Downey was somehow desecrating the canon by playing against the Holmes-as-Vulcan version of the character.
I say that’s effete pseudo-intellectual snobbery and I say the hell with it. This movie wasn’t perfect, but it was far truer to its source than a lot of Holmes fans are apparently willing or even able to admit. I look forward to a sequel.