Sherlock Holmes: Review and Criticism

December 26th, 2009 by | Tags:

Overall:  Not bad.

Any more, and I’ll be spewing out spoilers, so only click if you want to know.

I was surprised at the number of reviews that said this Sherlock Holmes was grittied up for the sake of Guy Ritchie’s sensibilities.  The movie, as far as I can tell, is actually surprisingly faithful to the original characters, and the mood that the original stories were trying to convey.  All right, Sherlock Holmes didn’t box in Doyle’s stories and he certainly didn’t do it in a muddy boxing ring surrounded by gamblers.  However, the literary Holmes was revealed to be both extremely physically strong and an accomplished practitioner of eastern martial arts.  If the stories were always firmly rooted in Watson’s point of view, but the movie follows Sherlock Holmes, it makes sense for the movie to show Sherlock exercising even if the stories do not.

The stories also show Holmes to be every bit as dissolute as he is in the books.  Whenever he wasn’t involved in a case, he plunged into depression and drug use.  He also conducted strange experiments that caused his housekeeper no end of trouble, kept odd hours, and was extremely disorganized.  The movie gets one detail in particular right; Doyle’s stories mention Holmes using a revolver to, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘drill a patriotic V.R. into the wall.’  When I was a child, and reading the stories, I had no idea why VR was so patriotic, which is what made the detail stick in the back of my mind until I saw the V.R. in the movie.  (It’s for Victoria Regina.)

Holmes, while only rarely rude, is spectacularly unconcerned with convention.  In fact, he tries to subvert it often, delighting in using ridiculous costumes to gather information.  This movie is one of the few adaptations of the stories that manage to use the costumes well.  In most media, we know immediately that it’s Sherlock under those dirty clothes.  During this movie, there was often a ripple of amusement in the theater when the audience discovered what was happening.

As for Watson himself, he’s less stuffy in the movies than he was in the books, and for some reason they make him into a near-compulsive gambler.  However, in the books he’s ex-army.  (I remember him as serving in India.  Wikipedia says Afghanistan.)  He’s something of a ladies man, describing in loving detail each attractive woman who comes in to consult Sherlock Holmes about a case.  Because he plays the straight-man to Sherlock’s mad genius, he often comes off as a little excitable or dim, but he’s not bumbling or prissy.

The tone of the Sherlock Holmes stories was always the same.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have embraced spiritualism in his life, but his stories were grounded in rationalism.  He had a gift for taking the tone of the gothic horror stories of his forbearer Edgar Allan Poe, and having Sherlock Holmes come up with a realistic explanation for them.  The movie does the same, building a case for mysticism and having Holmes knock it down.

It’s true that the movie goes far beyond what the stories, or what any adaptation of them, have done.  But then, it has to.  It’s no longer the 1800’s and it’s not a low-budget television series.  If you want the stories, (and let’s remember, they’re supposed to be adventure stories) to have the same effect on modern movie audiences that they had on Victorian readers, you need to build them up.  The Sherlock Holmes series is about a nutzo genius, his combat vet of a friend, and the wild and horrific crimes they solve together.  That’s what the movie shows.

The main female character is where the movie falls down.  It does so, I think, because they didn’t follow the stories and instead took the path that many adaptations have.  In the original books, Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler met, I think, twice in their lives.  At one of those meetings, he was a witness at her wedding to another man.  Irene outsmarting Sherlock Holmes consisted of recognizing Holmes despite his disguise, and getting the hell out of Dodge.  Her original crime?  She was engaged to be married to a prince, but he dumped her for a blueblood.  Since she had a photograph of her and the prince together, she could ruin his engagement.  He hired Holmes to retrieve the picture. 

When she runs (with her new husband) she leaves Holmes a note saying that since she ‘loves and is loved by a far better man,’ she has no intention of ruining the prince’s engagement.  She’s only keeping the pictures to make sure the royal house doesn’t move against her.  Holmes apologizes to the prince for his failure, but the prince exclaims that Irene is ‘always as good as her word,’ and this is the best possible resolution.  I can see why writers of contemporary novels, movies, and TV shows seize on her character.  She is the one woman that Sherlock is supposed to admire (the stories literally say that he ‘disliked and distrusted’ women).  The point of her story, though, is not just that she outsmarted Sherlock Holmes.  It was that despite her mildly scandalous past (she was an opera singer) and the sleaze of the situation she was involved in (prince’s ex-fiance reveals all!), she was actually a kind and virtuous woman.

The movie makes her into Catwoman, if Catwoman weren’t averse to marrying a bunch of random guys in order to get their money.  The movie’s Irene is a cynical adventuress with a string of ex-husbands and a penchant for thievery.  I suppose that might have worked if she had a reason for being in the movie.  Sadly, she didn’t.  She might have, easily, but she didn’t.  Instead, she had a reason for being in the next movie.  And this is my biggest criticism of the Sherlock Holmes.

Yes, I know that franchises are popular and make money.  Yes, yes, I know that trilogies are de rigueur ever since the Spider-movies made them profitable and Peter Jackson won an Oscar for one.

I don’t care.  Finish this damn story before you start the next one.  I paid to see a movie.  Not half a movie.  A little teaser on the end, a la Iron Man or Batman Begins?  That’s okay.  But if a Major Element with Dramatic Lighting and Wrist-Mounted Pistols Like Deadshot Only With A Steampunk Look is woven tightly into the plot of the movie, I don’t want to get to the end only to be told I’ll find out more the next time I plunk down $10.75.  I want resolution.  Goddamn, people.

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12 comments to “Sherlock Holmes: Review and Criticism”

  1. I hope this move does make enough money for a trilogy. Just not a Sherlock Holmes one. I still want Ritchie to be able to make his Rocknrolla trilogy…

  2. I agree with the review’s sentiments—the movie does a good job at Holmes, but the usage of Irene Alder has been making me wince since even the trailers.

    But I’m surprised how many people on the Internet are getting this wrong: Holmes has always been a good boxer in the books. His pugilism has been established since the very first “A Study in Scarlet” (or was it the story after that?), in which Watson makes a list of as many skills he can perceive from his new roommate. Or maybe I’m misunderstanding you.

  3. @arglebargle: Huh. I must have forgotten about that. I don’t remember Sherlock Holmes ever boxing, although he always seems to get the best of anyone when there’s a struggle.

  4. You know, most trilogies wait until the SECOND movie to give us a cliffhanger, which is just as irritating.

    By the way, Whenever I think Sherlock Holmes I think that “Brave and the Bold” episode where he matches wits with Batman.

    “How did you know who I was?”
    “Everyone knows who you are. You’re the world’s greatest detective.”


  5. Hm. You do a nice job of defending the film as more faithful to the Doyle stories than I’d have taken it for (having read very little of the Doyle). But I didn’t like the movie much because it felt … shamelessly modern. Terrorists vaguely threaten England! And America, in an otherwise pointless aside! It’s loud and frenetic and shiny! I think the same plot and cast, minus Ms. McAdams, in a contemporary setting would’ve entertained me more.

  6. “I suppose that might have worked if she had a reason for being in the movie. Sadly, she didn’t. She might have, easily, but she didn’t. Instead, she had a reason for being in the next movie. And this is my biggest criticism of the Sherlock Holmes.”

    I actually thought this was a clever little twist. Throughout the movie, we see Holmes using misdirection to conceal his true intentions. At the end of this movie, Irene is running off with the cylinders only to be chased by Holmes, and while he’s going one way, Moriarty slips in the back door and gets what he’s really after. That was a plot element running throughout the whole film, and I think it’s a neat trick the writers played on the audience that while we’re following this character to see what her role in this mystery is, turns out it’s all a ruse by Moriarty (and the writer) to set up the sequel.

  7. I thought it was true to the idea of Holmes as a Victorian pulp hero more than anything else.
    Holmes was also portrayed in the stories not as a master of ‘various martial arts’, but a specific art not dissimilar to Sumo wrestling: in the movie he uses lots of closed-fist punches and kicks instead of open-palmed strikes and holds, presumably because it makes for more traditional visuals.

  8. I was dissapointed. I went in expecting the movie to be bad.

    First Avatar then Sherlock Holmes. I’m like a reverse jinx

  9. “it felt … shamelessly modern. Terrorists vaguely threaten England!”

    See, when I got to that part, I was immediately reminded of the Gunpowder Plot (i.e. the one Guy Fawkes was arrested for). It was a plot to blow up Parliament when both houses were in session and the king was present. In 1605.

  10. I enjoyed the film, but like yourself felt a bit frustrated by the ending. With that said, I’ll be fine three or four years from now when viewing this as a two-part movie when paired with the sequel.

    Until then though, I am only telling my friends that it was a good movie and not a Must See.

  11. @arglebargle:

    That confuses me as well. I accidentally (thank you wiki-walking) looked up Sherlock Holmes a few weeks ago and randomly stumbled upon an excerpt from one of the books where not only is Sherlock called a great boxer, but an actual professional boxer that Sherlock fought as an amateur was glad Sherlock didn’t turn pro so he wouldn’t have to fight him again.

  12. Franchise teasing aside, I enjoyed the film for what it was – an entertaining romp. It, as you say, upped the bombastic action quotient for modern audiences, but this is thankfully not overly anachronistic.

    Still I’d love to see the uncut version of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It wasn’t the definitive cinematic Holmes, but it was a nice homage to the stories.