I have to confess, I went into the new Sherlock Holmes movie with relatively low expectations. I’m an inveterate Jeremy Brett-IS-Sherlock Holmes fan, so the news that Robert Downey Jr. would be taking on the role was greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism. No one else can seriously compare to Brett in my view, end of story, period, the end. I’d say I was intrigued by the idea of the movie – I like Robert Downey Jr. well enough, and Jude Law is, well, JUDE LAW, but the movie was being directed by Guy Ritchie. I mean the guy married MADONNA for goodness’ sake (that does not gain one points in my book, just sayin’). However, color me shocked on all fronts – I loved this movie. Downey may not be “the” definitive version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous creation, but his take on the iconic character is the most fun and entertaining that I’ve seen in, well, ages. And I loved Law’s take on Watson – refreshingly, here Watson is mind-blowingly competent for once, and the movie gives you a good sense of the Holmes/Watson friendship, particularly the sacrifices Watson had to make in his personal life in order to make that friendship work. Downey and Law have a really wonderful best friends chemistry on-screen, and seeing that friendship play out is a big part of what made the movie so enjoyable for me.
The look of the film is spectacular. I loved every single thing about the way Ritchie presents his darkly foreboding vision of Victorian England. He gives the atmosphere of the movie a real gothic flair. I also loved the costumes – Downey and Law each wear their respective suits really well. And it’s nice to see Sherlock sans the deerstalker hat that’s become such a part of the character thanks to previous films. Here Holmes is a somewhat more bohemian dresser which fits with the character’s somewhat slapdash personal habits from the stories. Mark Strong’s costumes give his character, the villainous Lord Blackwood, a suitably Dracula-like flair. The only real punches of color in the film as regards costumes belong to Holmes’s muse, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). The shocking bursts of color in her costumes represent well, I think, what her character does for Holmes in the film (that is, shakes him up terribly!). Oh, and the Hans Zimmer score is just fantastic - definitely one of my favorites by him, full of cool themes and Holmesian flourishes. Probably my favorite work by Zimmer since the Pirates films.
This version of the Holmes story returns much of the character’s energy to the screen that’s lost or “toned down” in earlier film adaptations (like Basil Rathbone’s take on the character). Brett’s take on Holmes does a good job of balancing the more refined, aristocratic points of the character’s personality with his tendency towards rather manic bursts of energy, particularly in the middle of a chase. This is seen especially in the early Brett films, since as the series progressed the actor’s health grew progressively worse and the effects of those health problems can be seen on-screen. In 2009 much of the gentlemanly veneer Holmes has worn for the past 100 or so years is ripped away, and we get to see all of the character’s energy and brilliance on full display.
Which brings me to Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes – I LOVED every second of his performance. Downey’s Holmes is brilliant, eccentric, energetic, manic, selfish, mannerly, sensitive, and hopelessly inept at personal relationships. He’s extreme in all respects, but in the best possible way. One of the best aspects of how Holmes is portrayed in this movie is that you get to see how the detective thinks. Credit for successfully pulling off this not inconsiderable feat goes to both Downey's acting and Ritchie’s direction. Seeing the way the great detective’s brain views the world is not only fascinating, but it goes a long way towards explaining why he finds “normal” (haha) people so frustrating to deal with (and vice-versa). In addition to the really extraordinarily well-done depiction of Holmes’s mental acuity, this take on the character doesn’t shy away from any of Sherlock’s more sensational habits and skills. We get Holmes the drug addict, the fighter (fist-fighting, plus he’s quite handy with a cane), the amateur scientist, the disguise expert, and the violin aficionado.
Holmes’s ever-present friend and roommate is of course, Dr. Watson, whose film portrayals have ranged from the buffoonish to the competent (but never, ever approaching Holmes’s equal!). Jude Law’s take on Watson ranks as one of my favorites, not because of how it relates (or not) to the source material, but because it gives you such a great sense of the genuineness of the Holmes/Watson friendship. This movie comes at a rather trying time for the long-time residents of 221B Baker Street, since Watson is planning to get married. Of course marriage is going to alter some of Watson’s priorities, and that’s a change that the rather narcissistic Holmes is loathe to accept, which leads to some really funny scenes. I really liked how Law’s Watson is really competent, kind, loyal, and conscientious – he knows he’s not as flashy or quick-witted as Holmes, but he’s also not going to be taken advantage of (not without a fight, anyway!).
When I first saw the previews for Sherlock Holmes, I had somewhat mixed feelings toward the apparent steampunk direction of the storyline. It seemed as though Holmes was going to go all Van Helsing-like in this story, fighting baddies who can apparently raise themselves from the dead. The baddie in question is Lord Blackwood, played by the fantastic, fabulous, oh-my-gosh-his-voice-is-so-amazing-I-could-listen-to-it-all-day Mark Strong. Love him, in case you couldn’t tell. Strong is just terrific in this film – he’s scary, intense, evil, and wickedly smart, all in all a worthy adversary for Holmes. (He’s also gorgeous, weirdly crooked teeth notwithstanding. But that’s neither here nor there.) ;-) To speak to Blackwood’s methods – yes, he’s into all sorts of wonky spiritualism which fits well with the dark, gothic atmosphere of the movie. But the final confrontation at the end of the film neatly brings things back into Holmes’s most beloved area of expertise – that of a case solved through logical, well-ordered, scientific reasoning. I thought it was nicely done, and a touch I didn’t quite expect given the apparent tone of the movie. While I enjoyed the entire film, the concluding scenes are what really sold me on Downey as Holmes.
Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is the one ever-so-slightly missed opportunity in this movie in my book. Adler is such a fascinating character in the Holmes canon. She's the only woman who ever managed to gain the detective's genuine admiration. All other women were only interesting if they brought a fascinating problem Holmes's way, while Adler was the only one whose personality, mind, and capabilities fascinated him. This time around Adler is a little more than an American "adventuress," now she's a spy/thief for hire. When Adler and Holmes meet, sparks fly (I loved the moment when Holmes tries to hide her photo!), and it's clear that in this Holmesian universe the two have a passionate and complicated past. McAdams and Downey have some nice on-screen chemistry, and the characters' reunion raises tons of questions, like how did they meet, why were they separated, etc.? It's such an interesting premise, to place an iconic character like Adler on the wrong side of the law, but I just don't feel like the script did her justice. I wanted more context for her character, but perhaps that will be supplied in the promised sequel. The final scene between McAdams and Downey is very well-played, and I look forward to seeing the relationship develop in Holmes #2.
There's a few minor characters that I simply must mention. Eddie Marsan, last seen in Me and Orson Welles and earlier this year in Little Dorrit, is the perfect Inspector Lestrade to Downey's Holmes. He's Holmes's friend, but he's also enough of a by-the-books policeman to get aggravated with the detective's sometimes unorthodox methods. Kelly Reilly, who also made a brief appearance in Me and Orson Welles, plays Watson's fiancee Mary Morstan. She at first catches absolute hell from Holmes for "stealing" away Watson, but in a refreshing turn of events she very classily rises above this and recognizes not only how much Watson regards Holmes's friendship, but how much the too really need each other. The scene in the hospital was extraordinarly well played. Hans Matheson makes a brief appearance as one of Blackwood's cronies, the aptly named Lord Coward. Matheson is quit good at playing bad guys as he previously appeared as Alec D'Urberville in Tess on Masterpiece Classic earlier this year. James Fox also continues his practice of making a guest appearance in just about everything by playing Blackwood's father, Sir Thomas.
This is a seriously fun movie, was for me anyway. I may go see it again if time and finances permit. And I can not wait for the sequel this movie promises - the introduction of Moriarty (did I let that slip? *wink*) is beautifully done. Can. Not. WAIT. :)