Sherlock Holmes and the Curious Case of the Guy Ritchie film

Posted on February 9, 2010


What the hell is this?

I don’t normally do personal reviews of anything because, well, who really cares about my opinion and also I know that reviews by completely unqualified people can be really glib and unknowledgeable. I’ve been at the sharp end of them myself and so have never sought to propagate the phenomenon. But so many people have asked for my opinion on Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movie that I felt a blog post was in order. So here it is…

My goodness, where to begin. Well, I’ll start by making my position really clear. I adore Sherlock Holmes. I have done since I first read the stories when I was 15. I have hundreds of beautiful copies of the various collected works, shelves of pastiches and Sherlockian scholarship and lovingly packaged editions of the Granada series (complete with Jeremy Brett’s signature). It probably isn’t unfair to say that I was obsessed with it for a fair time. So maybe I wasn’t the target audience. And that’s fine. But I went to see it with someone who knew nothing whatsoever about Holmes, save the stereotypical deerstalker and calabash pipe- and also someone who knew a fair bit about Holmes. All of us left the cinema unsatisfied.

The first aspect that mystifies me is why, when these stories have lasted nearly 150 years, directors don’t trust that the reason they have lasted so long is because they are good. They are exciting. Men and women, children and adults over several generations have loved these stories. If we want to make a Sherlock Holmes film with a good story, we should definitely base it on one of them. Oh no, let’s come up with our own, I’m sure it’ll be better than anything Conan Doyle ever wrote. The resulting film is a bizarre sexed-up version of one of England’s finest literary creations which only diminishes from its subtlety and wit. This part of the film is lacking some pace: stick in a fight scene. It doesn’t have to be in character or make sense. Just make it as brutal as possible. Because that’s exciting. That’s what sells. Is it? I’m not so sure. I like to believe that a great deal of the British public is rather intelligent and shouldn’t be spoken down to. Fight scenes are fine. As long as they make sense in the though line of the action. Here we were treated to a Sherlock Holmes who goes cage fighting in his spare time. What? I must have missed that in the stories. There was literally no explanation given for this other than he was bored and didn’t have a case. Well, we all know what Holmes does when he doesn’t have a case: takes morphine and a seven per cent solution of cocaine. Any sign of that? Nope.

I mean, there were so many inconsistencies and inaccuracies it’s difficult to know where to begin. Mary Morstan, Watson’s fiancée, had her back-story taken away from her and replaced with…well, nothing really. We never found out how they met or who she was. At all. In the stories, Mary is Holmes’ client in The Sign of Four and that is how she meets Watson. Here Ritchie clearly wanted a scene were Holmes offends a woman and gets wine thrown in his face and nothing was going to stand in the way of that happening. Not character depth or anything.

for god's sakeDid you know Irene Adler and Holmes once shared a hotel room together? I know, I was surprised too, seeing as she goes from being a King’s mistress to the wife of Godfrey Norton, outfoxes Holmes and then travels around the world with her new husband. Gosh, when does she fit it all in? Especially as this Irene Adler, instead of being the fiery, intelligent, witty adventuress and an experienced woman in her 40s, is a girl of about 24. Seducing the King of Bohemia, getting married to a lawyer and boffing Sherlock Holmes all by 24? Man, I’ve led a boring life. It was a great shame as this new younger Irene didn’t add to the most elusive female character in the Holmes canon. It took away. Instead of “The Woman” who outwitted Holmes, she was reduced to a screaming Hollywood stereotype. A damsel in distress who (of course) requires rescuing. Save me, save me. The women in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories tend to be headstrong, independent women who come to see the consulting detective of their own volition, unchaperoned. They are bright and feisty. It seems we haven’t come very far. Oh dear. Oh, and did I mention Ms. Adler is now in league with Moriarty? Yes. Apparently. Not that this makes much sense or is necessary in any way other than to propagate a sequel (dear god, no.) It was like a Holmes Greatest Hits album but instead of all the songs playing one after the other they were played simultaneously creating nothing more than a noise.

goodLook, I know Holmes is one of the most recognisable characters in fiction, if not the most. And as such he enters the realm of mythology. And myths are there to be played around with. I understand that. I really don’t mind the Holmes story being tinkered with for the sake of a bit of excitement. I really don’t. There is a wonderful series by the American author Laurie R King in which Holmes, having retired to the South coast to keep bees, takes on a young girl called Mary Russell as his apprentice. It stretches the dating of Holmes to the limit, making him as young as he possibly could be in 1915 when the first book The Beekeeper’s Apprentice begins. I won’t spoil what happens later in the series but suffice to say it would have Sherlockian purist foaming at the mouth in anger. I don’t mind it. And the reason I don’t mind is it’s written with an understanding and fondness for the work it is spawned from. It respects the original’s longevity and never tries to ‘better’ it. The Holmes in those stories might not be as mature as he perhaps should be but he is recognisably our Holmes. The one we’ve read and loved in Doyle’s 56 short stories and 4 novellas. The pastiche, if it can be called that, has been done intelligently and that’s why so many Sherlockians and Holmesians (their US counterparts) approve.

The same can be said of the recent Dr Who and Star Trek revivals (both programmes are close to my heart and were childhood obsessions). They kept the tone and sensibilities of their original counterparts and respected the esteem in which they’re held. Whereas Ritchie’s film strayed so wildly from the original stories, he may as well have given it a different name. Short of making Sherlock Holmes a small child with magical spectacles that can see through time and who goes on adventures with Watson, an android who wants to be a real boy, this couldn’t have been further from the mark. It’s fun playing with the myth sure, but alter it beyond all recognition and what’s the point anymore?

So what is at the very heart of a good Sherlock Holmes story? What did Ritchie sacrifice which made this film into something other than Sherlock Holmes? Some people would say deduction. Deduction and logic is what makes Holmes, Holmes. I think there’s a truth to that and it was certainly lacking. There was one perfunctory scene which I felt Guy Ritchie included as a contractual obligation rather than because it is the cornerstone of what makes Holmes tick as an individual and as a character, but other than that Holmes mainly sorted things out by punching people and shooting things.

oddI for one think that, more important than deduction, the Sherlock Holmes stories are about a friendship between two people. That’s really what it boils down to and what makes us care. Just like Kirk & Spock and The Doctor and his companion. The show is essentially about them and their relationship. All the rest is window dressing. Watson wouldn’t work without Holmes and Holmes certainly wouldn’t work without Watson. Doyle wrote a couple of the stories from Holmes’ perspective rather than his faithful companion’s and the Great Detective suddenly seems slow and plodding. When Watson doesn’t understand, it’s endearing because he’s such a decent, loyal man, when Holmes doesn’t understand, it’s just annoying. So they really need one another to survive. Literally in many cases. They moved in together, after all, because a mutual acquaintance, Stamford, introduced them as neither could afford their rent. It’s that reliance that makes these stories tick. And it’s that which I feel was lacking from this film. Okay, maybe Holmes is sore because he’s losing his flatmate to a woman but he certainly wouldn’t begrudge Watson happiness to such an extent that he would jeopardise it. Holmes loves Watson. That’s really important. Maybe he’s guilty of being a little unthinking at times because he’s deeply embroiled in a three pipe problem but he would never actively seek to spoil Watson’s marriage. That would make him a bad guy and Holmes, like the Doctor in Dr Who, for all his darkness and vigilantism, must always be ultimately on the side of good. As it happens, Watson continues to go adventuring with Holmes and documenting his cases well into his marriage and possibly his second marriage (if you were a Shelockian you’d be laughing at that quip. I won’t bother to explain. It’s way too boring and involves dates.)

I didn’t really feel like these people were two old friends. That was not, I felt, down to Jude Law who put in, I really must admit it, a rather brilliant performance as Watson. I believed him. I believed he was ex-military, I believed he loved Mary. I believed he loved Holmes. It felt real. Downey Jr, however (and I must stress I like him, I really do. He was fantastic in Chaplin, everyone knows that) well, he seemed to have had his face paralysed for this film. It was bizarre. Why had no-one said anything? I can virtually hear the accent coach saying “do less with your face. That’s what Brits do. Especially if you’re speaking in heightened RP.” But, christ, not so much that you can’t understand what he’s saying anymore. He sounded like a stroke victim. I can understand why he was chosen. Johnny Depp had turned it down and they thought, who else is quirky and can do an English accent? (An English person? A younger executive might have ventured. Hahahahaha, everyone would have laughed. Americans couldn’t possibly be expected to go and see a film set in England with an English director and an English cast. Not unless it’s by Richard Curtis and about upper middle class people getting married. Don’t be so ridiculous.)

And so Downey Jr was cast. And in many respects he did okay. He was distant and eccentric and kept untidy rooms etc etc. But he just looked such a mess. Holmes was a gentleman. An eccentric, yes and prone to mood swings when on the cocaine and bored with no case. Yes, he had untidy rooms but as far as I can see, and I’ve read the books, I promise, I don’t remember him wandering around London in little John Lennon style sunglasses, unshaven and half dressed. I must have missed that part. The guy has taken cases for the monarchy. In the 19th century. He didn’t wear John Lennon sunglasses. He just didn’t. It all seemed rather ridiculous as just a few feet away was a fine actor called Mark Strong playing the bad guy, Lord Blackwood, who fitted the physical and vocal requirements for a good Holmes completely. Aquiline, high browed, cut-glass RP. Perfect. It is just insane that he was standing by while Downey Jr played Holmes. They really really should have organised a role swap because the whole film would have been a hundred times better. Downey Jr would have made a great villain.

Now, I liked the fact that Holmes was played by a man in his 40s. That is a good thing. Holmes should be a young, energetic man. Holmes and Watson meet in 1881 and if we do some boring calculation involving the dates in a story called The Musgrave Ritual, we come up with a birthday of either 1853 or 1854 for him. (Sherlockians fondly give him a birthday of January 6th, Twelfth Night, as this is the Shakespeare play he quotes most from.) So by rights, the Holmes of the 1880s and 1890s which is the golden age of the stories, should be a man in his 30s and 40s. Much younger than the “classic” image of him. How did this image come about? Well, a fellow called Sidney Paget has a lot to answer for. He was hired by The Strand magazine in which a great many of Doyle’s stories were first published, to provide appropriate drawings to accompany the text. They are very beautiful drawings, but Paget based the character of Holmes on his grandfather. This made him much older than he would be if you date him within the stories. Paget is also responsible for the deerstalker hat and the calabash pipe which are never mentioned in the stories. Holmes smokes anything he can put a match to, mostly cigarettes but also pipes (type unspecified), cigars, opium pipes (when undercover, of course), anything. Holmes is seen wearing the deerstalker when traveling to the countryside. Understandable as it was a traveling hat. In the metropolis, however, he would most certainly have worn a top hat. He was a gentleman after all. Or maybe he’d have worn a bizarre wide brimmed affair to look like Quentin Crisp. No, that’s back to Ritchie’s film. Baffling. At least they resisted the urge to say “elementary, my dear Watson” which, like “beam me up, Scotty” was never actually said. Different combinations of those words perhaps, but not those words exactly.

Okay. I didn’t hate it. I think Holmes is so awesome I sort of can’t hate it; even if it changed beyond all recognition- (Basil the Great Mouse Detective is ace and in that Holmes is a cartoon mouse). There is much to like in the movie. London looks beautiful, Jude Law, as I’ve said, makes a more than decent Watson, Holmes shoots VR into the wall when he’s bored: tick, the black magic of the plot is coolly and logically debunked by Holmes piece by piece: tick and Mark Strong makes a very good baddie. There’s also a lovely bit of flatmate dialogue between Holmes and Watson along the lines of who their dog belongs to. (They have a dog by the way. No, that’s not in the books either, but still.)

But, oh, it could have been so much better. Most people favour either Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett as Holmes. For me, it is Brett. The Rathbone films, with their plots transplanted from the 19th century to the 1940s will always be a bit glossy and Hollywood for my liking, not to mention good old British war propaganda whereas Brett was effortlessly and accurately Sherlock. Which is perhaps to deny him of all the hard work he put in poring over the text getting every nuance of the character perfect. His bipolar disorder ironically may have helped the role as Holmes, too, is prone to fits of excitement followed by long periods of ennui. When it was suggested to Brett that Holmes might have manic depression he slammed the phone down as the part was affecting him so deeply. When advising another young actor about to play Holmes he said “good luck with the vacuum”. So, as I say, I adore Brett’s performance as Holmes. He is often described as “definitive”. Like David Suchet as Poirot. The actor and character somehow fit together. But- and this is important- that doesn’t mean we all wouldn’t be delighted if someone came along and blew all predecessors out of the water. Everyone said David Tennant could never follow Chris Ecclestone but after Tennant’s first outing in the role my mom turned to me and said “Chris who?”. It is always possible.

I just felt that while a scalpel was taken to Star Trek and Dr Who to regenerate them into their current “cool” incarnations, Ritchie went at Sherlock Holmes with a sledgehammer. It was very much Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Two Smoking Barrels. Holmes inspired by the Steam Punk graphic novels rather than the beautiful intricate stories by Doyle. And maybe I shouldn’t let that worry me because, ultimately, any exposure is good and this film, however bizarre, will have provoked some new people to read the stories. People who would have never dreamt of reading them before. I know someone who works in a bookshop and he reports a huge upsurge in the number of Complete Sherlock Holmes being bought. They’ve even placed a copy in the “in the news” section. That’s got to be a good thing. Many of these newbies will start reading and think “pah! This is nothing like the film” and give up. But a few will carry on. And those that do (and get through the second half of The Study in Scarlet- no Holmes- snore) will begin a wonderful, wonderful adventure and make two really good friends. For that alone Guy Ritchie, thank you. I just hope that as these bright young things read the original stories they are struck by that old adage that applies in all situations with the possible exception of Jaws, that the book is waaaay better than the film.

That is really all I have to say. Well done for reading this far. There seriously can’t be many of you. And please, please be aware that I know, in the scheme of things, none of this matters. I know this is hugely geeky and obsessive. I know it’s not important. But sometimes it just feels so goddam vital to say these things. And what better place than the internet to spew this meaningless diatribe? All done.

PS As a treat for reading all this, take a look at some proper Holmes.  This is from The Adventure of the Red Headed League.

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