The funny thing is that I don’t even like the character of Sherlock Holmes all that much. I read “The Speckled Band” in second grade and quite liked it, but over the years, I’ve lost interest in and actually gained quite a lot of distaste for the character. But my boyfriend, Graham, still likes him; he even watches Elementary. And I like Robert Downey, Jr., so we went and saw it in the theatre. Before we saw Avatar, in fact, because even with my dislike of the character, I was still more interested in this. And honestly? I wasn’t disappointed, and there’s only one of the pair where I had the slightest interest in a sequel. Which I also like, but that’s a story for another day.
Robert Downey, Jr., is of course Sherlock Holmes, with Jude Law as Watson. The plot is frankly byzantine. Watson is moving out of 221B Baker Street, planning to marry Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) and settle down and live like a person. Which Holmes resents bitterly, because it is not a way that the universe revolves around him as it properly ought. So he works to sabotage the relationship as only a Sherlock Holmes played by Robert Downey, Jr., can.
And also, there’s this whole complicated thing where a Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) was executed for witchcraft, totally a thing still in 1890 (actually, the movie appears to be set while Holmes was briefly dead, but never mind), but is now Risen From the Dead! With a secret society and a sinister plot and it kind of doesn’t matter except as an excuse for a series of set pieces. Also basically irrelevant is why Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) has returned.
Because the fact is, Irene Adler has long fascinated people above and beyond her appearance in the stories. She only appears in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which I’ve not read, and is later referred to as being dead without ever reappearing. However, she frequently appears in adaptations and reimaginings, far more frequently I think than people actually adapt “A Scandal in Bohemia.” In fact, when the time came that Graham and I were choosing a name for our daughter, he asked me what the name of “that woman who outsmarted Sherlock Holmes” was. And I do think that’s part of it, the idea of a woman who outsmarts Sherlock Holmes—and not out of nefarious reasons, though this series makes her considerably more of an adventuress.
Which, I think, is the main difference between this and the original Holmes stories. Everyone is just a bit more dissolute. Or a lot. But not as much as people think; the main difference that struck me between this and the stories was that typically fastidious Holmes was all scruffy. The fighting? Yeah, there’s more fighting in those stories than I think people remember; I was always astounded by how often the stories I read, many of which were set after Watson’s marriage, involved Holmes telling him to go with him wherever-he-was-going and bring his pistol. And after all, Holmes is supposed to be quite strong.
Oh, goodness, and the drugs. This is another film from this era that relies heavily on us accepting the obvious fact that Robert Downey, Jr., has a bit of familiarity with drug use. Watson at one point mentions that the thing Holmes is drinking is an anesthetic for eye surgery. What was used at the time as a topical anesthetic for eye surgery? Why, cocaine, of course—the cocaine that we know Holmes took. I also think that it’s accurate to the stories that he takes more and just generally experiments more when he isn’t working a case. He needs stimulation, and he’s not inclined toward finding his own except through chemicals and his violin and, in this case, punching people in the face.
Okay, I would imagine someone deeply devoted to the original stories would dislike these for distorting the source material. But I honestly don’t think they distort the source material as much as the modern variations. I mean, you can just not like a steampunk aesthetic, and that’s certainly valid. The fact that I do is a lot to do with why I like this movie. However, I think this is another one of the characters who has slipped the bounds of his source material and become a projection for people’s interests. This is not any less accurate a version as that cartoon one set in the future, even if it’s incredibly less accurate than the Jeremy Brett version.
I guess one of the problems is that people have different expectations of the character. People who are generally okay with silly action movies don’t want it crossed with their Sherlock Holmes, and people who want Sherlock Holmes generally don’t want it crossed with a silly action movie. Strangely, I don’t tend to be a fan of either, but I did like this. The plot is ludicrous, ludicrous enough that you’ll notice I’ve never really bothered to detail it. I’m also not usually a Guy Ritchie fan, but I’m fond of the way we see Holmes plotting how everything is going to go and then watch it unfolding exactly as expected. It’s one of the best uses of slow motion in a movie, in my opinion.
I am also passionately fond of the score for this movie. It’s rich with violas and dulcimers, two of my favourite underrated instruments. It’s one of the most appropriate scores to a movie that I can name, one where the music (by Hans Zimmer) fits exactly what the rest of the atmosphere of the movie even though it’s not entirely period accurate. It’s not that I dislike the score for Up even a little, but I was still disappointed when it beat this for Best Original Score at that year’s Oscars. (Production Design, the film’s other nomination, went to Avatar.) I like the score’s feel and cheerfully listen to it unconnected to the movie.
No, of course this movie isn’t for everyone; no movie is. But I feel that its whole comes together a lot better than it gets credit for. So it’s not a coherent narrative, exactly, but it’s at least strung together. I’d argue that it’s no more ridiculous than some of the actual plots of the era. The acting is pretty decent. The costumes are a delight—the production design may not be Avatar, but it’s certainly no slouch. I feel that it’s just taken a different aspect of the character to highlight than everyone expects—instead of the distant, intellectual Holmes, this is the dissolute, violent bits. And since I’ve always felt that Holmes is at least half faking his reasoning, that works for me better than you might expect.