Review (sort of): Sherlock Holmes

by Tom Ingram

I’ve been waiting to see Sherlock Holmes ever since it was announced. For years now, I’ve been an avid fan of the stories. I’ve read around half the short stories and one of the novels. Today, when I finally got a chance to see the movie, I was excited. This is one of the most brilliant works of literature in the English language brought to the big screen. And, best of all, it stars Robert Downey Jr, most famous for his recent portrayal of Tony Stark in Iron Man. What could go wrong?

Well, as it turns out, pretty much nothing. In short, the movie was great. When you’re adapting to the big screen often you have to sacrifice faithfulness in order to make it work as a movie. They didn’t do that here. The movie captures the tone of the original stories very well. Downey Jr is perfect as Holmes, which when you think about it isn’t that surprising. Remember Tony Stark? The eccentric prodigy, prone to drinking and knavery but absolutely brilliant? Yeah, that’s right. Downey Jr’s Holmes is a perfect translation of the original to the screen.

One of the best things about this film, however, is how it looks. I don’t know where they filmed it, but it looks just like I imagine Victorian London in the stories. Everything is beautifully detailed, with that gritty late nineteenth-century look. I want to say “steampunk”, but obviously there’s no punk of any kind involved. So just “steam”, then. The costumes, too, are perfect, especially on Watson and Holmes. Watson is always impeccably dressed, even after wading through the Thames and saving a woman from a death trap in an abbatoir. Holmes has the same clothes as Watson (“we’re on a barter system”), only he constantly looks like he just woke up after a night of hard drinking.

I don’t have any significant complaints about the movie, but apparently others do. Many reviewers said that it wasn’t true to the source material. I can only conclude that they haven’t read the source material, and are stuck with the elementary deerstalker-and-pipe image of Holmes. The plot was a bit bigger in scope than most Holmes stories, but nothing too jarring. Remember The Adventure of the Naval Treaty? A pre-Clancy political intrigue story. If Holmes hadn’t figured it out, a war could have started between England and Russia or France. Or The Bruce-Partington Plans? Same idea. A Victorian techno-thriller. Terrorists trying to kill most of the Parliament is not too far-fetched. That particular caper has been done before.

Another criticism was that Holmes was twisted from an intelligent detective into an action hero. First of all, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that he’s as intelligent as ever. He’s constantly a step ahead of everybody else. Secondly, Holmes has always been a bit of a badass. He’s a boxer, and in The Solitary Cyclist he knocks out a man much larger than him, coming home with nothing more than a bruised knuckle. In The Speckled Band, the villain tries to intimidate Holmes by bending the poker. After the villain leaves, Holmes casually bends it back without the slightest effort. He’s used guns on many occasions, though he’s always been less proficient than Watson (which is shown in the film). The Scooby-Doo ending is also a common feature of Sherlock Holmes stories, and employed to great effect here.

There’s no doubt that it works on the level of a mindless action thriller. It’s also a good cerebral mystery story. But it translates all the trappings of the Sherlock Holmes canon as well, and not enough people are giving it credit for that. All told, I’m not sure I would say this is the best film of 2009, but it’s certainly up there.

PS: Persons caught complaining about the pronunciation of Irene Adler’s name will be taken outside and beaten with a copy of Webster’s dictionary.