The new Sherlock Holmes movie is, of course, a must see for Holmes buffs, and beyond that … for regular movie goers … it is still recommended. The movie is a high-test, quirky, action packed, funny cliff hanger. Having said that, Holmes aficionados will probably get more out of this movie than those who have not read the original stories or seen some of the better movie and TV depictions. There are also things you should appreciate about this film regarding gender because it is likely to come up. It is very very easy to label a film as racist or sexist in some way. This is partly true because so many films are racist or sexist in some way. But it is also true because … well it just is. But for this film, which has only three female characters with lines there are, as I say, a few things you should know.
So my short review is that I liked the film a lot. My longer review is a potential SPOILER so don’t go below the fold until you’ve seen the film or if you don’t care about how the most fundamental mystery of the movie comes out. Of course … I won’t really tell you how the movie’s plot turns goes. I’ll say almost nothing about the plot. But plots are not everything.
I can best orient you to the film by discussing the characters in relation to the Holmes Canon. The main characters are Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, A female lead named Irene Alder, a very bad bad guy named Lord Blackwood (the “lord somethingoranother” allusion to He Who Shall Not Be Named is blatant), Mrs. Hudson, and the red-headed Constable. Then there are a bunch of other characters who make the plot work. Now, in relation to the Holmes Canon …
Holmes is the same old Sherlock Holmes but shorter, gruffer, straighter, five-o’clock shadowier. In that Basal Rathbone and Jeremy Brett bracket Doyle’s holmes, Robert Downey Jr. in this movie is singular, and not in that bracket. But he is the same character coolified and updated yet still quite 19th century.
Oh, I should mention: The time of the story we see in this movie in relation to the Holmes Canon is early. The American Civil War is a fresh memory, and Professor Moriarty is not known to Holmes at the beginning of this movie, but is by the end. Watson is still living with Holmes but is about to move out, but NOT to be with his wife from the original canon. (It can’t be her because Holmes meets her for the first time in this movie, but Watson’s famous disappearing wife in the original stories was saved by Watson during one of the cases.) Anyway, this is early in the Doyle sequence of events, and I believe there is a reference to Watson and Holmes having been living together for seven months.
Watson is the most changed character from the canon, and this is one of the best parts of the movie. Watson is socially dominant over Holmes, almost. When Holmes delivers one of his classic disparaging lines (which Doyle’s Watson has Holmes deliver at least once per story, usually near the beginning, as a matter of personal humility on the author’s part) … in this case the line being “Watson, your ponderous silence is one of your more invaluable traits” or words to that effect … Watson socks Holmes in the mouth. That is a different Watson.
Lestrade is Lestrade, the ink from Doyle’s pen.
Irene Adler is implied to be an ex and future lover of Holmes (that’s new) baed on Irene Adler of A Scandle in Bohemia who is a strong female (that’s new) who is a criminal (that’s rare) who plays a major role in the plot other than as victim (that’s new). So this is the gender bit I mentioned above. There is an actual female who does not even once faint and in fact knows how to shoot and fight and so on and so forth. The fact that she is a duplicitous individual who, if one was close to, would make you not trust women ever … is right out of the canon. You will remember Holmes’ particular gallant misogyny. (Irene Adler is the woman who made Holmes’ into a confirmed bachelor.)
Mrs. Hudson, one of the only other females with lines (the third I’ll skip and allow you to find her yourself when you see the film) is structurally similar to the original but is also socially dominant over Holmes, more or less. And taller too, I think.
Holmes and Watson have a dog, by the way.
And speaking of dogs, Lord Blackwood is the bad guy, and he’s equal to Moriarty in his deviousness and ability to plan evil, if not fully equal in his intellect. I won’t tell you more than that.
The red-headed Constable is right out of the Canon. You may not remember that character, he’s only in a few of the original stories, but he is represented by an equivalent constable … sensible, strong, willing to help Holmes, and humble … in many of the stories. This is an important role given the nature of Holmes and Lestrade and their relationship. Sometimes you just need to get the paperwork done right or have key observations of the crime scene passed on to the master without a lot of snarky bullshit.
Moriarty is in this movie, and his role is somewhat important to the plot, but he is not the nemesis. Holmes does not even know who he is until the end, when it becomes apparent that Moriarty is up to no good and must be stopped. In the next film. Which I sincerely hope they are working on.
I’m going to describe one scene to you which exemplifies the way director Guy Ritchie transforms canonical Sherlock Holmes into new Holmes by keeping the old intact and adding completely new approaches in a very quirky way that makes this movie Instant Classic.
Irene Adler has visited Holmes and Watson in their rooms on Baker Street. She leaves and walks around the block to a carriage that is waiting for her. She gets in, and a mysterious man already in the carriage (whom she knows) starts talking to her as they drive off. Just then, a street beggar has an altercation with the carriage and runs to the window yelling something incoherent at the occupants. The mysterious man (you never see his face) tells the beggar to screw off and threatens him.
Now, if you are a Holmes aficionado you will immediately guess that the beggar is Holmes himself in disguise. But, since the scene happens seconds after Adler has left the Baker Street flat, you might actually not assume that.
So now the scene shifts back in time, and back to Holmes’ apartment. The lady has just left, and Holmes puts on his disguise. The way he does this is to change one or two items of clothing in the apartment, then jump out the back window into a coal dust bin, where he gets covered in soot. Then he follows the woman through an outdoor carnival that happens to be set up on Baker Street, where he acquires a few more items of clothing including a hat and an eye patch. By the time he gets around to lunging, drunk and crazy like all those 19th century London beggars were, at the window of the carriage, he is in complete disguise so even his ex and future lover does not recognize him.
I won’t mention the musical score other than to say that it is highly innovative, is used in unique ways, and should earn an academy award.
Now, what about that ultimate mystery I mentioned in the beginning? This is where the REAL SPOILER starts, so stop reading here if you have not seen the film yet. No kidding.
OK. Do you remember the The Hound of the Baskervilles? One of the main themes of that story is the question of the supernatural. Can there be a truly demonic dog that truly comes from hell out on the moors? Or is this the work of an intelligent but evil human agent with nefarious intentions?
A parallel question that comes up in that book is this: Would Holmes himself ever entertain the possibility of a supernatural explanation? Would Watson?
It is interesting that Watson and Holmes are both “men of science” but in very different ways. Watson is a true scientist, though he is actually a medical practitioner. He understands and values the nature of general theory and trusts science to be a means to understanding the world. But Holmes cares nothing of general theory, and explores and commands only methodology, but exquisitely so. Doyle has Watson make the claim in A Study in Scarlet that Holmes did not know that the Earth goes around the Sun (as opposed to the other way around). Holmes found no need for this sort of knowledge in his pursuit of the denizens of London’s criminals, and given his theory that the brain had just so much room, preferred to not know about astronomy.
In the Hound, Holmes and Watson are shown as unlikely to accept a supernatural explanation for what are obviously supernatural events, and eventually (and I’m sure this is the basis for the original Scooby Doo cartoon) they prove that the hound is mundane and the evil quite human.
The new Sherlock Holmes movie explores this question as well. Half way through the film, I started to become concerned that this was a movie about Sherlock Holmes doing battle with an actual demonic supernatural force. That would have been totally bogus. It would have annoyed the heck out of me. It may have made me not like the movie
But in the end…
Enjoy the film.