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.