Guy Ritchie has made an entertaining and exciting film, faithful to the core of the original rather than the accepted iconography of the enduring detective. To paraphrase the tagline of a recent, and successful, reinvention: this is not your father’s Sherlock Holmes.
Determined to avoid the narrative restraints of an origin story this film begins with Watson, Holmes and the familiar miscellany of Conan Doyle’s characters in play. Opening with a baroque action set piece Holmes and Watson apprehend Lord Blackwood in the throes of bloody, ritualistic murder. Lestrade and his forces turn up too late and what could have passed for the film’s end scene plays out with a verbal and physical flourish and so we begin.
Two things happen. The established world of Holmes and Watson, their relationship, banter and professional accumen are present and the script’s economy, as well as our knowledge of the world gained by cultural osmosis, renders this with great efficiency. The characters are well formed, and as an audience we know where we are in the wider world of Holmes. This is a buddy movie, an action thriller, a detective story, but it hints to the promise of something more and the film delivers on almost all of this promise.
The other key thing to happen occurs when Holmes crouches to his knees in anticipation of taking out a guard. I won’t spoil it but it takes the cinematic flair of Guy Ritchie, Downey’s studied madness and a visual effect overused in recent times to make something fresh and fun out of this scene. It’s a crucial opening, and you know what kind of film Ritchie has set out to make. The camera’s movements are swift and chaotic, and this sense of muddle and mystery is maintained throughout.
I won’t spoil the story, suffice to say that the joy of Holmes’ conclusive summation (almost beyond parody with years of Scooby Doo) has its moment but never weighs too heavily on the narrative flow. The pace is so quick you don’t have time to pull together the threads of clues, and Ritchie avoids making us play detective, and this to the film’s benefit. The pace of the film is a touch uneven with small character based scenes often lining up uncomfortably with scenes of elaborate peril, but never once did I care. The ride was too much fun.
Robert Downey Jr. is exceedingly good in this role, springing from an intectually induced malaise to deducing personalities with sharp precision, bringing an energy and charm to a performance which is engaging and a lot of fun. A conscious decision was made by the production team to avoid the Holmesian accoutrements, so bareknuckle fistfights and childish bickering with Watson take the place of deerstalkers and ‘Elementary’s. Hammer fights in the dockyards are the order of the day, and Downey makes this work, and is able to make Holmes a man of physical, as well as intellectual, power.
Complaints against the casting of Jude Law as Watson are groundless after his first interaction with Downey’s Holmes. You get the impression they enjoyed working together and the decision to make Watson and Holmes as equals actually allows Watson to step back occasionally and this helps focus the story on Holmes. Though at times the story’s pacing is carried along by Ritchie’s visual momentum Law and Downey make an engaging pair.
In creating Lord Blackwood, an original villain and an original mystery to accompany him, the film frees itself from cultural shackles and this is not meant disparagingly; the film needs to maintain an intellectual curiousity in the audience as well as an emotional bond and a pulse heightening charge. Mark Strong has pointed out that by having Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty as the villian of the piece the mythology would be set, the ritualistic murders an impossibility for this well known adversary. Strong is impeccable as always, imbuing the sometimes cliched script with a dark purpose; I could have watched him all day. Rachel McAdams’ character Adler, isn’t given the same treatment sadly, and our attraction to her character diminishes as her arc rarely steps out of the conventional.
The film I thought of most was Barry Levinson’s oft overlooked Young Sherlock Holmes with its secret societies, demonic ritualistic undertones and the spirit of Holmes is alive in this film, as it was in that one. The production design is flawless, Guy Ritchie has spoken of the luxury of walking onto set and finding a tangibly real set, potent with inspiration for the day’s shooting and Sarah Greenwood’s creations are intricate and crafted with such care. From the opulent society dinners to the dark, dangerous prisons each scene invites you delve deeper into the world Holmes inhabits, and is a perfect representation of the chaos he seeks to bring to order.
Hans Zimmer’s score is riddled with little touches to elevate it above the norm. The jangly anarchy of the early scenes set up the London streets with an uneasy jauntiness while at other times he uses the plucking of violin strings to echo Holmes’ meditation as the pace of the film slows.
In essence this is an old style action film that is immensely enjoyable, with two engaging leads, a dangerous villian and Ritchie proves he is able to control action set pieces with aplomb. Deliberately wide ranging in its appeal there is much to enjoy about this film, and the decision to use Conan Doyle’s words in as many scenes as possible is testament to the regard Ritchie and his team have for the source material. Downey and Strong excel, and raise what, in lesser hands, may have suffered a more mundane fate to create an exciting spin on an established classic.
Sherlock Holmes is out in the US on Christmas Day, with the UK getting it a day later.