Monday, January 04, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

I've been a fan of Sherlock Holmes ever since I read the original stories - out of Victorian-era Strand magazine reprints in the bottom of my father's bookshelf, no less (how's that for a boast?)

That being said, I've never been much of a fan of Holme's onscreen incarnations. By far and away my favorite was Robert Stephens, in Billy Wilder's beautiful The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The rest have, quite frankly, left me feeling rather flat.

But no longer.

Because last night, I saw Guy Ritchie's big-screen re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes and it was magnificent.

Starring Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, 'Sherlock Holmes' is an action-packed movie that threw away decades of movie mystique and returned Holmes to his literary roots. That meant no deerstalker or plaid cape - just a bohemian genius in a darkened flat that smelt of sulphur and gunpowder.

Ritchie's movie is unashamedly post-modernist; the fast pace and brutal action scenes are unapologetically aimed at a 21st century audience with a short attention span. However, true fans of Holmes won't be disappointed. Apart from the ambiguous relationship with New Jersey con artist Irene Adler (played scintillatingly by Rachel McAdams) there's not a moment of the tightly-worded script that's not totally in sync with the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

People who criticize the movie for being too violent, or say that Robert Downey Jnr's portrayal of Holmes is too frantic and unstable, clearly haven't read the books. There were more than a few stories in which Holme's talents at boxing served to his advantage, while the stories themselves made no secret of the fact that Sherlock was (in the words of Downey Jnr himself) 'nuts.'

Ironically, it's not even the character of Holmes that's undergone the greatest reinvention. Traditionally, the movies have portrayed Doctor Watson as a bumbling oaf (it was actor Nigel Bruce, opposite Basil Rathbone, who perfected this caricature) yet that's certainly not how he appears here.

Young, vibrant and energetic, Jude Law's portrayal of Watson is perfectly in keeping with Conan Doyle's original description ("thin as a lath and as brown as a nut," according to A Study in Scarlet.) What's more, he's no bumbling idiot. As befits a decorated army surgeon, Watson is tough, focused and an invaluable partner to Sherlock Holmes.

And when it comes to Holmes himself, Robert Downey Jnr and Guy Ritchie do a magnificent job expressing the man's maniacal energy. Through intense bursts of sound and rapid camera cuts, Ritchie illustrates how Holmes is a man who's brain is always racing. He's literally burning up with intellectual and physical energy - a madness that can only be assuaged by the single-minded pursuit of a mystery's solution.

Downey delivers this perfectly - with his portrayal of Holmes carefully balanced between madness and genius. I particularly enjoyed the way Holmes would 'visualize' his physical actions before he performed them - a neat and practical demonstration of the Victorian theory of the Law of Attraction (or modern-day 'Neuro Linguistic Programming.)

And yet even ten paragraphs into this review, there's yet more I loved about this film - like Guy Ritchie's beautifully-realized Victorian London.

Bustling, busy, intense and vibrant, this was a city you could actually believe in - and Holmes and Watson actually lived there. Tiny little touches - like sharing fish and chips (from a very specific stall, since Holmes liked the beer they used in their batter) reveal a portrait of the city only a native could deliver (director Guy Ritchie's best movies have always been set in his native city, ever since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.)

The music, again, hits the mark with unerring accuracy. Holmes has traditionally been accompanied by classical music, or violin masterpieces. Instead, Guy Ritchie cranks up the old Victorian Victrola, infusing the soundtrack with a bit of period raunch that sucks you into a down, dirty and thoroughly believable vision of Holmes' London.

Ultimately, you'll need to approach Sherlock Holmes with an open mind to truly appreciate it. If you like your Holmes in the mold of Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone, you'll be sorely disappointed. Robert Downey Jnr's version is debauched, dangerous, anti-social and self-destructive (much like he was in the stories.)

Likewise, the movie is a rough, tough adventure which focuses heavily on punch-ups, shoot-outs and chases - which are a little intense compared to Conan Doyle's stories (but not necessarily out of keeping with them.)

Personally? I loved it. I'd have sat down and watched the whole damn thing a second time if they hadn't booted us out of the cinema. I think this film is nothing less than masterful - and has permanently altered my perceptions about the World's Greatest Consulting Detective.

And somebody please buy me the soundtrack CD for my birthday.


Brit Gal Sarah said...

Thanks for the excellent review, I am a big RD Jr fan he is a wonderful actor, and can't wait to see this. Now even more so!

mre30seattle said...

The Paisley and I saw it Christmas day. Loved it. Plan on seeing it again.

Soundtrack for birthday....hmmm remind me when that is. I'll get it for you.

laserMD said...

What was the name of the beer in that batter? They mention it in the movie! I like obscure movie details, such as the Kopi Luwak coffee mentioned in The Bucket List (