Making Bricks With Clay: Sherlock Holmes [2009]

Which of the above is psychologically disturbed?

My review of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes appears at Strange Horizons today. Ritchie’s timing, of course, couldn’t have been better. I would always have been interested in his film, and all too willing to compare it to the stories and to screen Holmeses past, too; but in the wake of last year’s project his movie was, and here I say it, a delicious little dessert. If by this you infer I mean that it wasn’t exactly nutritious but suited my tastes, you wouldn’t be so far from the truth.

On Strange Horizons I focus on the influence of SF on the film, which is undeniable – steampunk and the gothic are constant, if subtle, presences in a story which pits the technocratic rationalism of Robert Downey Jr’s bohemian Holmes (who admittedly doesn’t much look like the received image of the detective) against the severe, forbidding mysticism of Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood. This makes it, as foregrounded by the prominence of the unfinished London Bridge, a story about science and construction. As religious maniacs scream and secret societies chant mumbo jumbo, Holmes’s logic seeks to make order from chaos – it seeks, in fact, to make people free, where Blackwood’s magic derives its power from the paralysing fear it produces.

Which is all well and good for a publisher of the literature of science fiction. But is Sherlock Holmes a good, well, Sherlock Holmes film? It shouldn’t be forgotten that Ritchie chose to make Holmes eponymous – this is a Sherlock Holmes film, about Sherlock Holmes, and it is so in a series of rather shrewd ways. Yes, there is sex and violence, but even that has just enough justification for all but the most rigid of Sherlockians to let pass. So Holmes’s relationship with Irene Adler, though clearly sexually charged, is ambiguous – and it is always Adler who initiates its racier physical side. Likewise, the violence is matched to character: Watson is clinical and bold, fitting with the ex-soldier he is strongly (and satisfyingly) emphasised to be; Holmes’s mind works in such a way that he plans his blows artfully in the seconds before he delivers them. Both are, perhaps, severe extensions upon their justifications within the original stories (“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman”; “I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling”), but they are treated in such a way that the extensions do not lack support.

The role of Holmes’s logic, too, makes Sherlock Holmes a movie which understands the lineage of its principal character. His arrangement of facts and thesis is correct, and he sees things because he is looking for them. The rigour of his scientific view of the world is clear, if playfully presented, and he is depicted as a hero precisely because of that refusal to bow to less clear-sighted modes of thought. True, Watson exclaims at one point, “You’re not human!”. But this, too, is merely part of the film’s fidelity to the source text – “This mustn’t register on an emotional level,” Downey’s Holmes reminds himself. This Holmes’s detachment, his sense of theatre and over-weening pride, are all straight out of the stories. If Downey is unshaven and his Holmes dresses in a way which would have had him hounded out of polite Victorian society, all other aspects of his portrayal, if again at times shaped and molded for the new millennium, feel right. It is, perhaps, a reboot – but no travesty.

There are inevitably bumps in the road. Watson’s accent seems at times a tad too Crown & Anchor (yet Law is wonderfully warm and responsive, and his limp was a thing of childish glee for a follower of the Jezail bullet); Irene Adler has been shaped into an unVictorian international woman of mystery (yet she is referred to as an “adventuress” in A Scandal in Bohemia); the plot, it is true, follows noirish conventions in its final over-complexity (yet follows in its strangeness and outlandishness several of Conan Doyle’s own grotesques). These awkward additions nevertheless feel, with those just-enough fidelities, like gentle grafts rather than brutal transplants. The ‘bromance’ between Watson and Holmes may be the element of the film most difficult to reconcile with the stories, and indeed with previous screen outings or Victorian England itself, but it is done with such wit – the script is often very sharp – and chemisty between the leads that it feels like an acceptable twist of a relationship which, even in Conan Doyle, was often waspish and tense. Again, where Ritchie’s film adds it does so on such solid foundations that the structure does not crumble.

I liked Brad Keefauver’s comment that the film is “Sherlock Holmes done at the pace Sherlock Holmes himself moves.” This seems just right – perhaps because the movie is ultimately hokum, and routinely particularly bonkers hokum, it moves very quickly. Right from the first scene, in which Holmes runs ahead of a hansom cab carrying Watson and Lestrade, the film plays out at a dash. Holmes has always run ahead of us. Quite contrary to my expectations, those who said in pre-release interviews that the film had great respect for the books weren’t lying. It also has a healthy dose of irreverence, and perhaps this is not to the taste of some – but it can’t be argued that that irreverence isn’t also intelligent, entertaining and not a little careful.

You surprise me, Mr Ritchie.

It’s Sherlock Holmes done at the pace Sherlock Holmes himself moves.

“The Stormy Petrel of Crime”

"Holmes was working hard over a chemical investigation."
"Holmes was working hard over a chemical investigation."

The Naval Treaty feels unusual: not only is it finally a full write-up of on of Holmes’s political cases, with which Watson has routinely teased his readers but of which not a single one has he ever offered up; it is also a relatively long story, by the far the longest of the Adventures and Memoirs. This gives it more time to introduce the characters and to layer the clues – as Holmes points out at the story’s end, the principal difficulty of the case was shaving away all the extraneous detail.

In a sense, this makes the story frustrating – an awful lot of it proves to be irrelevant. Yet much of it has such lovely colour that it doesn’t matter: there’s the cleaning woman’s tart retort about the difference between an omnibus and the detectives’ hansom, Phelps’s unabased admission that he got his high-ranking position in the Foreign Office through familial influence, and Holmes’s own encomium to flowers. There are Downing Street drawing rooms and Woking cottages, Cabinet ministers and commissionaires. Homes moves through this milieu with his usual focus, but the story itself is uniquely expansive. (Indeed, it was originally published in The Strand in two parts.)

The mystery itself recalls The Beryl Coronet: a priceless artifact is lost, and the culprit is not who at first it seems obviously to be. Mark at the excellent Good Night Mister Sherlock Holmes recently pointed out that The Beryl Coronet doesn’t quite make sense (though you’ll remember I disagree with his contention that the story is nothing special), and The Naval Treaty has a similar flaw: surely Phelps’s fault is in losing the Treaty in the first place, and its return will not save his reputation as a safe pair of hands. Of course, Holmes’s wink that Phelps and his uncle, Lord Holdhurst, won’t want the case come to court suggests that he (and we) are party to a cover-up, but nevertheless the return of the Treaty is secondary to its loss.

Similarly, the thief’s immediate recognition of the value of the Treaty strains credibility – many government documents are fairly dull things, after all, and the mystery itself feels less satisfying than its mise en scene. There is a sense, in his penultimate of the first round of Holmes stories, that Conan Doyle is growing weary: he acknowledges in his reference to The Speckled Band that he is recycling ideas, and though this is approaches an early instance of the spy story, it is a story which still struggles to wring new life out of Holmes’s profession. Its moments – Holmes’s admission that he solves cases for his own sake as much as his client’s, and Harrison’s, “For a moment I thought you’d done something clever” – are spot-on, but moments they remain. Holmes remains engaged by his adventures, but does the author?

To which end, this week’s post wouldn’t be complete without a comment on the great detective’s latest reinvention. Scott Monty rather likes it, and certainly Communicator’s commenters are right when they identify its broad farce elements as so-bad-they-could-be-good. But it’s hard not to think that Ritchie is making a Hollywood comic book romp and appropriating a famous character to stand in as its protagonist, merely for the extra PR bump. Reinventions and reboots can do a series a bucket of good, but a reconceptualisation is quite a different animal.

“Resolution Pushed to the Length of Obstinacy”

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name.

"Our quest is practically finished."
"Our quest is practically finished."

A Scandal in Bohemia is the first of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in the Strand from 1891. Its title refers on the face of it to the particulars of the case: the King of Bohemia has fraternised with a woman from the lower classes, and requires a photograph of them together to be retrived from her possession prior to his marriage to the daughter of the King of Scandinavia. Holmes, established in this story as a regular sojourner to the courts of Europe, is selected as the only appropriate agent in such an endeavour.

But there is perhaps something else in the title: Holmes himself is described by Watson in the course of his case notes as a Bohemian, referring of course to his curious habits and unconventional lifestyle. And the woman with whom the King of Bohemia has fraternised, Irene Adler, is so singular a representative of her sex that she enchants even the cool, ineffable Mister Sherlock Holmes. Even Holmes’s Bohemia, then, is rocked a little by the scandal.

There’s a lovely moment when Holmes gives rise to these feelings by inverting the social hierarchy which dictates the plot: lamenting that so beautiful and intelligent a woman is not of his status, the King of Bohemia is a recipient of Holmes’s arch rejoinder, “From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty.” A friend recently suggested to me that Holmes’s principle genius is to know the rules of a regimented society: by so immersing himself in Victorian social law, he is able to predict, deduce and anticipate to super-human levels. Here, though, he proves himself not to be blind to the absurdities of those rules: he is able, better than the King of Bohemia, to see the worth of an individual as separate to their social status.

Holmes keeps two souvenirs of this remarkable woman: a photograph of her, and a sovereign she gave him whilst he was in disguise as a drifter; he promised to place the latter on his watch chain and this sentimentality has been seen by many readers as speaking of something like love. Despite Watson nixing this idea in the story’s very first paragraph, it’s been a source of endless fan fiction since. Adler plays a role in Guy Ritchie’s forthcoming Sherlock Holmes movie, though the King of Bavaria appears not to.

As Holmes might have predicted, Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein has been forgotten, but not so Irene Adler.