C: As a lifelong fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, I was overjoyed to hear that Robert Downey Jr. (surely one of the finest actors of our day… and one of my biggest celebrity crushes) was going to be playing the role. When I saw the trailer, however, the sensation that filled me was less joyful, and more–queasy. Boxing? Explosions? Holmes kissing Irene Adler and getting handcuffed to a bedpost naked? No no no!
Nonetheless, I couldn’t help being curious. Was it true, as some reviewers claim, that the film was nothing but an absurd series of whizz-bang action sequences in a Victorian setting? Or as others are saying, that RDJ’s brilliance lifted the movie from lameness? Last night E and I decided to head to the theater… and investigate.
First things first: this film’s got style. From the costumes to the sets to the thoroughly-captured gritty, greasy milieu of late-Victorian London, the movie immerses you in its world. The Hans Zimmer score features a lot of streaky, capricious violin, keeping the audience as edgy as Mrs. Hudson must have felt when Holmes practiced at three in the morning. Holmes and Watson dash here and bash in there, chasing the sort of Cultish Conspiracy that movies of this genre (think National Treasure, Indiana Jones) always revolve around.
What I liked immediately is that, if these aren’t quite Doyle’s Holmes and Watson, in some ways they’re closer than most movie and TV adaptations have gotten. For one thing, they’re youngish energetic men. Holmes is always being played as venerable and grey-haired, but he’s supposed to be in his thirties for many of the tales. And while Downey’s performance is getting the raves – deservedly- Jude Law may be the first actor to do Watson justice (if we exclude Ben Kingsley in Without a Clue, that is!). He’s smart and capable with his own set of motivations apart from his more renowned flatmate’s, and while he’s still useful to Holmes primarily as a good man in a fight he’s no sycophant or bumbler.
E: Rachel McAdams does well enough as the challenging criminal Irene Adler, and it was a pleasure to see some other favorites in the cast, like Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade! It’s not quite as memorable a role as Pancks in Little Dorrit (what would be?), but he’s uniformly fantastic. Mark Strong is typically creepy (especially his hair) as the villainous Lord Blackwood. (Anyone else confused as to how he could be a Lord, though?) And then there was the unexpected pleasure of seeing the most recent Caroline Bingley (Kelly Reilly) as Watson’s fiancée Mary Morstan, and North and South‘s miserable union scrub Boucher (William Houston) as Constable Clarky. (Turns out Houston will also appear in the upcoming cheesefest The Clash of the Titans, one of many previews we saw before the show.) Mary, by the way, wore one of the best costumes either of us has ever seen.
With somebody more gifted in the screenwriter’s seat, this ensemble of actors in these roles could have made something unforgettable. The film falls short of that, but not by too much. If you don’t love action sequences for their own sake, there’s still plenty to entertain. And despite what the opening did to my stomach, the whole wasn’t as vertiginous or nausea-inducing as feared. You’ve never seen Holmes fight like this, but – interestingly, I thought – he still fights as much with his mind and knowledge as his fists. The movie loves a good explosion and has a very male enjoyment in smashing stuff to smithereens. We’re not so much there for the mindless violence; as C likes to say, explosions ought to be earned. The ones here aren’t at Death Star level, but they’re not boring.
We’d rather not spoil the plot for you. It certainly wasn’t based on anything Doyle wrote (film versions of his work have always tended towards the sensational and Gothic, though Doyle’s stories are really more like Victorian CSI) but it ended up transcending its rather hammy set-up. What compelled us most about this movie – more than the snappy performances or the glorious costuming and production design – is the fact that the writers were smarter (and, actually, more attuned to Doyle’s vision) than we expected them to be. I came out of the theater rather elated; not thinking it was the best movie I’ve ever seen, certainly, but really pleased with how they pulled it off. It couldn’t be more clear that the producers are hoping for at least one sequel. While we won’t await that as giddily as we’re anticipating Ironman 2 (the most delectable preview of the night), we’d both be happy to see this new incarnation of Holmes continue.