Sherlock Holmes

I saw the new movie Sherlock Holmes over the weekend. Short review: I liked it far more than I expected to, though it is a bit silly in places. Longer review, with a few spoilers, below the fold.

A number of years ago there was an atrocity of a movie called Young Sherlock Holmes. Though it made a few gestures in the direction of the original Conan Doyle stories early in the film, it ultimately came down to young Holmes battling a bunch of Satan worshippers, or some such nonsense.

The opening scene of the present film features Holmes stopping someone named Lord Blackwood from carrying out a similar such ceremony. At that moment I was certain that my worst fears were about to be realized. I take my Holmes very seriously, you see, and there is a limit to how much straying from the Conan Doyle canon I am willing to tolerate.

Happily, my fears were unfounded. Lord Blackwood is subsequently tried and hanged for his various crimes. Dr. Watson himself is the presiding physician, on the scene to pronounce Lord Blackwood dead. Blackwood does not remain long in that condition however, and is quickly resurrected. Mayhem ensues.

The Holmes and Watson of this film are probably closer to what Conan Doyle intended than in a lot of other film adaptations of his stories. The super human Holmes and bumbling Dr. Watson of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films was always a bit of an exaggeration. Robert Downey’s Holmes is a smug, socially awkward genius who does a variety of drugs and participates in cage fights. Pretty close to the way he is portrayed in the stories. Though Holmes does not fight for money in the original stories, it is clear he is quite the bruiser and well able to take care of himself.

Incidentally, that scene of Holmes fighting that you see in all of the movie advertisements is actually one of the funniest scenes I have seen in a film in some time.

Jude Law’s Dr. Watson is maybe a bit too competent. He is a decorated military man and a doctor, so he obviously has some chops. But here he seems positively unimpressed with many of Holmes’ deductions and very impatient with Holmes, which defnitely is not how he is portrayed in the stories.

At any rate, the film played into one of my favorite genres of detective fiction: a sequence of events that seems to be explicable only by hypothesizing the supernatural ultimately yields to a natural explanation. In fairness, though, a supernatural explanation might have been more plausible in this case.

The movie does descend into silliness in a few places, but that it OK. It was far more enjoyable than I anticipated. They pretty clearly set up a sequel, so I will be looking forward to that. Robert Downey is currently the go-to guy for smug, eccentric genius types. Between Tony Stark and now Holmes, he is pretty much cornering the market. (Speaking of which, I saw an Iron Man 2 trailer before the film. It looks AWESOME!)

Oh, good music too!

Go see it.

Comments

  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    December 28, 2009

    I completely agree with you about the music (but you knew that already). Another thing that I liked about the film was how you would see some seemingly minor occurance (such as Rachel McAdams getting into the carriage) and then later discover the significance of it as Holmes describes to Watson the adventure that led to it.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    December 28, 2009

    A number of years ago there was an atrocity of a movie called Young Sherlock Holmes. Though it made a few gestures in the direction of the original Conan Doyle stories early in the film, it ultimately came down to young Holmes battling a bunch of Satan worshippers, or some such nonsense.

    Not Satan worshippers. Fanatical followers of Osiris who kill people by shooting them with blowdarts which induce bad acid trips.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 28, 2009

    Not Satan worshippers.

    Drat! I thought I might be misrembering that detail. I have mostly tried to blot the movie from my memory, you see.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    December 28, 2009

    I have a certain sentimental fondness for it; there’s no accounting for sentiment! :-)

  5. #5 MartyM
    December 28, 2009

    I just came from seeing the movie. I’m not very familiar with the original stories or earlier movies. I liked it more than I thought I would. I was most surprised at how science friendly it is. How Holmes skepticism is played out to the realization that no supernatural events were present. I especially liked that Holmes effectively said data have to be collected before scientific theories are conceived, otherwise the data tend to be forced to conform to theory. I’d recommend seeing it.

  6. #6 Scott Monty
    December 29, 2009

    Glad to read your assessment. If you take your Sherlock Holmes seriously, might I suggest you check out the Baker Street Blog at http://bakerstreetblog.com and my podcast I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere at http://ihearofsherlock.com – two great sources of topical Sherlockian content.

    Best,
    Scott Monty, BSI

  7. #7 IanW
    December 29, 2009

    I plan on seeing this. Thanks for the input.

  8. #8 SLC
    December 29, 2009

    Many critics consider the TV series starring the late Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke/Edward Hardwicke as Watson to be the definitive portrayal. I frankly found Brett, especially in the later entries rather tiresome. However, certainly Burke/Hardwicke was a more accurate portrayal of Watson then was Nigel Bruce who comes across as somewhat of a buffoon in the motion pictures.

  9. #9 Gingerbaker
    December 29, 2009

    At any rate, the film played into one of my favorite genres of detective fiction: a sequence of events that seems to be explicable only by hypothesizing the supernatural ultimately yields to a natural explanation. In fairness, though, a supernatural explanation might have been more plausible in this case.

    Doyle’s own ambivalence regarding the supernatural is interesting in this regard. His own private life belief in the occult belies Holmes’s insistence on methodological naturalism.

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 29, 2009

    SLC -

    I agree with you about Brett. He was very good in the early entries, but gradually became a caricature of himself in the later adaptations. I also agree with you about Watson. I think Burke/Hardwicke got the right balance between basic competence and awe of Holmes that was typical of the original stories. Nigel Bruce and Jude Law represent opposite ends of the continuum on that one.

  11. #11 SLC
    December 29, 2009

    Re Jason Rosenhouse

    What I suspect happened was that Mr. Brett eventually became bored with the role, much like Richard Boone became bored with the role of Paladin after the first two or three seasons and Sean Connery became bored with the role of James Bond after the first 2 or 3 movies.

  12. #12 crf
    December 29, 2009

    Jude Law was in one of the Brett Sherlock Holmes films.
    It’s a strange coincidence.

  13. #13 bmkmd
    December 30, 2009

    “In fairness, though, a supernatural explanation might have been more plausible in this case.”

    How Doylian of you.

    Turns out that Arthur Conan Doyle spent the last twelve years of his life in a tireless crusade against science and rationality, explaining away all kinds of rational and scientific reasons for things, in deference to spirituality and the paranormal.

    He even refused to believe the repeated denials by his friend Harry Houdini that Houdini was not a psychic, insisting that his escapes were on such an “utterly different plane” from other magicians that it was “an outrage of common sense to think otherwise”…even though Houdini explained to him how he had dones some of his tricks.

    Martin Gardner, a deceased skeptic of the highest order, has a little chapter in the Pseudoscience section of his 1996 The Night is Large essay book about Doyle.

    All said and done, it’s hard to imagine Doyle having written any of the Holmes books himself. He was 180 degrees away from the rationality of Holmes and Watson for that matter. Even the occult in the Holmes stories are backdrop, not the heart of the solutions.

    Gardner argues that the Sherlock Holmes books could not have been written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Maybe he was a front like Cervantes for Sancho Panza in Don Quixote. He just wasn’t rational enough.

  14. #14 bmkmd
    December 30, 2009

    “In fairness, though, a supernatural explanation might have been more plausible in this case.”

    How Doylian of you.

    Turns out that Arthur Conan Doyle spent the last twelve years of his life in a tireless crusade against science and rationality, explaining away all kinds of rational and scientific reasons for things, in deference to spirituality and the paranormal.

    He even refused to believe the repeated denials by his friend Harry Houdini that Houdini was not a psychic, insisting that his escapes were on such an “utterly different plane” from other magicians that it was “an outrage of common sense to think otherwise”…even though Houdini explained to him how he had dones some of his tricks.

    Martin Gardner, a deceased skeptic of the highest order, has a little chapter in the Pseudoscience section of his 1996 The Night is Large essay book about Doyle.

    All said and done, it’s hard to imagine Doyle having written any of the Holmes books himself. He was 180 degrees away from the rationality of Holmes and Watson for that matter. Even the occult in the Holmes stories are backdrop, not the heart of the solutions.

    Gardner argues that the Sherlock Holmes books could not have been written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Maybe he was a front like Cervantes for Sancho Panza in Don Quixote. He just wasn’t rational enough.

    Thanks for the review, Jason. I was about to shy away after some of the mixed reviews but I’ll see it along with Avatar this weekend.

  15. #15 SLC
    December 30, 2009

    Re bmkmd

    Just for the record, it would appear that news of Martin Gardners’ demise is somewhat premature.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Gardner

  16. #16 The Science Pundit
    December 30, 2009

    @bmkmd

    “Jason Rosenhouse has woven a splendid introduction to probability theory around the notorious Monty Hall paradox—a paradox simple to state yet so counterintuitive that even great mathematicians have been fooled by it. Rosenhouse skillfully, and with much humor, covers all aspects of the paradox as well as endless variations and generalizations.

    —MARTIN GARDNER (2009)

  17. #17 SLC
    December 30, 2009

    Re Science Pundit

    It is interesting to see that Mr. Gardner, despite being 95 years old, still has most of his marbles. Of course, so did Ernst Myer, whose rewrite of his book, “What Evoltion Is,” came out in 2000 when he was a young wippersnapper of 96.

  18. #18 SLC
    December 31, 2009

    Of course, I meant Ernst Mayr and Evolution. Must use preview.

  19. #19 bmkmd
    December 31, 2009

    RE: The (Late?)Great Martin Gardner.

    This is truely awsome.

    Right here on an evolution blog, a bastion of rationality and scientific understanding of the world…what do we have?

    Communication with the dead!!

    Sorry, Martin. I was wrong, but it’s nice to you you are still ticking.

    Fortunately it was a day or two short of 2010 so it won’t count as my first mistake of the decade.

    And hopefully we’ll get more of your input into our discussion.

    bmkmd

  20. #20 Jr
    January 1, 2010

    I have decided to go see the movie now, based on your review Jason in part. I was worried they would have ruined the character completely when they spoke about “modernizing” the stories but you seem to indicate they didn’t.

  21. #21 Ian Gould
    January 2, 2010

    The one real problem I have with the “rational” real explanation of the supposedly supernatural events is that there’s absolutely no way the viewer could have inferred them from the clues provided.

  22. #22 SLC
    January 3, 2010

    Just for the information of those lurkers who may be interested, all the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone can be downloaded from Rapidshare. At least some of the episodes from the Jeremy Brett television series are also available for downloading from Rapidshare.

    http://www.filecrop.com/search.php?w=Sherlock+Holmes+.avi&pos=1&opt_t=1&opt_d=0&order=score&mod=dec&size_i=0&size_f=1048576&c=100

  23. #23 Jr
    January 3, 2010

    Its true Ian that the solution wasn’t exactly easy to guess. But in fairness that fault is shared with the original stories as well. Things like Sherlock tasting the glue but not revealing it are common in the stories by Doyle. In “Hound of the Baskerville’s” Holmes at one point smells perfume and thus deduces that a woman is involved but the reader is not informed until the end to tak eone example.

  24. #24 Alan Saunders
    January 9, 2010

    “But in fairness that fault is shared with the original stories as well.”

    I don’t think the stories were generally written as whodunnits designed to test the reader’s skill in working out the criminal or motive. Although Doyle did once bet his wife a shilling that she wouldn’t guess the killer in one story.

    I prefer to think of them as adventure stories about a detective, rather than whodunnits; that genre really came later.

  25. #25 Eamon Knight
    January 10, 2010

    Just got back from the movie. I liked it: they took liberties with, but did not do actual violence to, the canonical Holmes and Watson. However, I agree that the Granada TV series is still definitive (until about the last season, when the writers all apparently started doing some very bad drugs. And then Brett got sick/died and they tried to parachute in the Mycroft character in his place).

  26. #26 Ken
    January 13, 2010

    Saw it yesterday at the cinema on Baker Street. Their sign says “Sherlock’s Home”

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