Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: Review

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.

—– the fold —–

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.

__________________________

Jason’s Review is here.

Comments

  1. #1 NewEnglandBob
    December 30, 2009

    I haven’t seen it yet, but my (24 YO) son said he didn’t care for the movie.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 30, 2009

    My 14 year old daughter loved it. She is familiar with the Holmes stories (as am I). I wonder if your son is? I can’t assess how much of a difference that would make.

  3. #3 The Science Pundit
    December 30, 2009

    This is an excellent review! I saw the movie on Christmas day and have to agree with just about every point you made. In fact, over at Jason’s blog, I mentioned both the musical score and the scene with Irene getting into the carriage (which were two of my favorite parts of the movie). This is a movie I wouldn’t mind seeing again and will seriously consider purchasing the DVD (I’m not really the “DVD type”, but I do make the occasional exception).

  4. #4 Stephanie Z
    December 30, 2009

    I’ve been looking forward to seeing this. I hate it when Holmes is played too calm and collected. It’s as though people remember the violin and forget all the good stuff.

  5. #5 HP
    December 31, 2009

    I read you every day, Greg Laden, and as near as can be for such a relationship, I love you. Until tonight, I’ve never felt the need to criticize your idiosyncratic spelling choices. But . . . .

    Canon. One n.

    Canon, canon, canon, canon, canon.

    Canon.

    I mean, I love your writing despite all the times I think that a decent copy-editor could really make it shine. (And I say that as a former copy-editor.) But . . . .

    Canon. Canon, canon, canon.

    You can edit this post. You have the tools. There’s one n in canon. Make it so.

    Canon.

    Also, have you seen SEK’s posts at Lawyers, Guns, and Money about Avatar? He’s coming at it as a Humanities scholar of popular culture, but I think there’s some important parallels to your views as an anthropologist, albeit not necessarily to your views as a movie reviewer.

  6. #6 badrescher
    December 31, 2009

    I saw it today with my 9yo and 12yo boys and all of us LOVED it. I watched as he collected evidence and wondered how he would use it to unravel the mystery Scooby Do style. I was not disappointed.

    But…

    “Holmes cares nothing of general theory…”

    By “general” theory, do you mean pure speculation?

    The reason I ask is that there is a line in the film which made me cheer.

    Holmes basically told Watson that theory which does not come from data leads us astray. I don’t recall exactly what he said, but the gist was something fundamental in science that is often overlooked: we don’t pull theories out of the air. The confirmation bias would ensure that we interpret evidence incorrectly. Instead, we form theory from what is known (data), then test theoretically likely hypotheses.

    It is difficult to explain to students why it is so important in science that we form a priori hypotheses from knowledge and evidence, but something about that line did the job.

  7. #7 badrescher
    December 31, 2009

    btw, I know very little about the “canonical” Holmes. Never been a fan, so I didn’t read the original stories.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    December 31, 2009

    HP: Canon.

    Thanks for pointing out those posts, I’ll read them carefully. My first perusal is as I would expect form a race analysis (except I did not know about this casting issue, and it still confuses me).

    Barbara, what I mean specifically is that Watson is a rationalist and a self professed man of science, while Holmes describes himself as a practitioner of the rare art of “consulting detective” which is supposed to be a rational endevour but not explicitly scientific in the modern sense of the word.

    Holmes’ interest in data is consistent: Start with data until you can build a pattern, and when you match the pattern with knowledge from prior cases, you can form a hypothesis (filling in the missing blanks). Then you basically follow sometihng close to the scientific method.

    It is key that the difference between Holmes “Method” and regular science is that the guiding theory (like Newtonian mechanics or natural selection or whatever) is replaced with the corpus of prior experience.

    This is why Holmes is so interesting to Peircian semioticians…. because Holmes method is Peirce’s “abduction” (as opposed to deduction and induction)

    Watson, on the other hand, simply trusts science.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    December 31, 2009

    B: I recently finished reading Teh Canon from start to finish. Then, I felt moved for reasons beyond a comment on a blog to keep going so I read The Cannon! (Doyle’s History of the Anglo Boer War. I don’t recommend it.)

  10. #10 gregladenisafool
    December 31, 2009

    Atheist:

    have you for but a moment considered that you have adopted a position against 98% of the human race, both past and present?

    do you think you are RIGHT and they are all WRONG?

    WRONG

    now listen to this arrogant puffed up son of a bitch….

    little scientist geek who would try to usurp God Himself!!!

  11. #11 Holmes
    December 31, 2009

    I have the suspicion that “gregladenisafool” is actually Professor Moriarty.

  12. #12 Stephanie Z
    December 31, 2009

    Wants to be Moriarty. Wishes he were Moriarty.

    The mention by name, though, is a promotion for Greg. Usually it’s just PZ.

  13. #13 Bill James
    December 31, 2009

    Some Thoughts about Writing and copy-editors as it turns out.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    December 31, 2009

    Actually, I get a personalized note for every blog post I write. They just usually do not see the light of day.

  15. #15 Stephanie Z
    December 31, 2009

    Big shot.

    Just how insane does he have to be to not realize he’s a failure at this? When atheist bloggers start being congratulated for getting their first comment…. Of course, I haven’t arrived yet.

  16. #16 HP
    December 31, 2009

    Greg, the whole “canon” thing was my personal bugaboo, which for some reason I suddenly felt comfortable making plain tonight. Thanks for the edit. You’re really a brilliant writer, and I wouldn’t have mentioned it otherwise.

    I’m glad you’re going to take a look at SEK’s stuff at LGM. You’re one of the best (if not the best) writer out there on the fiction of race, and I would love to read your thoughtful critique of race in Avatar.

  17. #17 Bill James
    December 31, 2009

    Actually I thought it just a ruse in drawing attention to the PZ Myers clip. Worked too.

  18. #18 Phil
    December 31, 2009

    I enjoyed this film tremendously. But Watson’s fiancee is Mary same as the books. I assume we just didn’t see their first meeting, and this is a subtle rewrite of the canon. But I did like how,despite all the action, Holmes solves the case using detective science and debunking the supernatural. I liked the rather cheeky music hall style music. And I really liked how Holmes was a complete curmudgeon.
    I’m sort of hoping the next adventure will be the giant rat of Sumatra.

  19. #19 Paul Lamb
    December 31, 2009

    I’ve long thought that the reason the British pioneered the detective novel is because their society was so stratified. One could tell a lot about a person by their occupation or their clothing, et cetera. Holmes could make the leaps of logic he did because he had a fairly reliable basis for them. I’m sure this is no longer true of their society. (And I think the U.S. has pioneered crime fiction because we are a looser, more crime-ridden society.)

    Thus I think that some of the racist/sexist posturing in the movie can be explained/excused, though I suspect you’re referring more to the movie making than to the character/plotting.

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    December 31, 2009

    Phil, you may be write, but if so there is a huge mistake In the original story, Holmes meets Mary, of course. In the movie, Holmes says “I can’t for the life of me explain why we have not been introduced before”

    Of course, Mary mysteriously disappears in the canon as though she had never existed, so I suppose her existence can be strange at both ends.

  21. #21 Greg Laden
    December 31, 2009

    Paul: Well, it is 19th century society … the movie in a way is a feminist event in that not one female got brain fever or fainted.

  22. #22 The Science Pundit
    December 31, 2009

    @Paul

    I’ve long thought that the reason the British pioneered the detective novel is because their society was so stratified.

    I thought that Edgar Allen Poe, an American, invented the modern detective story.

  23. #23 Paul Lamb
    December 31, 2009

    Poe is given credit for it, but aside from his three stories, he never really developed it the way the Brits did.

  24. #24 amy
    December 31, 2009

    I’m looking forward to seeing the movie..You and your daughter might like to also read the series of books by Laurie King about post-retirement Holmes and his apprentice….the first in the series is the Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In one of these books, maybe more, it is clearly implied that Irene Adler was Holmes’ lover. One of the fun things about those books, also, is that Holmes is “real” (not a fictional character – in the context of the books), and he has a lot to say – nothing nice – about Conon Doyle.

  25. #25 Stephanie Z
    December 31, 2009

    Speaking of the greater Sherlockian body of work, Greg, have you read the Millett Holmes-in-Minnesota books?

  26. #26 TonyC
    December 31, 2009

    My son (14) & I went to see Holmes the other day with some friends. We all loved the movie. I think Guy Ritchie’s style added a lot to the story, and provided the same flavor of excitement that, I understand, the original stories evoked in Doyle’s contemporary (reading) audiences.

    Robert Downey Jr. deserves credit for his very original portrayal, as does Jude Law (a very believable Watson).

    I actually found Mary to be the most poorly and inconsistently played (having read most of the canon a number of times over the years).

    This is definitely a movie worthy of purchase and which will bear repeated watching.

    We are all looking forwards to Holmes 2 (whatever it will be).

    An amusing moment: the trailer at our showing was Iron Man 2. Who would have thought even a few years ago that Downey would have become so huge (and so damn good!)

  27. #27 John Callender
    January 1, 2010

    Not to be a curmudgeon; just offering another data point. But I’m a big fan of the books, and I was disappointed by the movie, despite not going into it with especially high expectations. I realize that this is a Guy Ritchie movie, and that means going in a certain action-oriented direction, but for me, I couldn’t really enjoy it in the thorough sense that many of you did.

    There were things I liked about the movie, certainly. It looked good, and the acting was good. But I kept comparing it to the Jeremy Brett adaptations, and it kept coming up short in my mind. Brett’s Holmes was believable. For me, this Holmes never really was. It wasn’t the acting that bothered me. It was that there was a cartoonish/comic book element to the plot, and (especially) the action sequences, that took me out of the flow of the narrative, and kept reminding me that this was a movie I was watching, a 21st century movie, in which people engage in Hollywood-style bullet-time fights, and fall or jump from high places or have ships on marine railways roll over them or outrun horrific explosions in slow motion (again and again and AGAIN), and in the next scene they’re fine (or maybe they’re not, but they pop back from a quick stay in the hospital with a few scratches) and they’re good to go another round.

    With that aspect of the movie continually bugging me, I was probably more nit-picky about the departures from the canon than I otherwise would have been. I didn’t really like this take on Mary Morstan, and Irene Adler’s character, while certainly fun to look at, just kept reminding me that this was a modern-Hollywood version of the story.

    I know that someone making a movie from a much-loved work of literature has to carefully balance being true to the original story with the need to make that story work in a different medium, and that injecting action and faster pacing and larger-than-life characterizations is a time-honored way of doing that. If Guy Ritchie is the director, you pretty much know that’s where it’s going. No one gave me boxcars of money to make a Holmes movie; if I want to enjoy the A-list actors and impressive production values (which I did), I’m probably going to have to accept that I’m likely to get over-the-top set pieces and a loose hand interpreting the canon.

    But I don’t know; it just bugged me how much Ritchie’s version departed from what I love about the original stories. I was unhappy enough that I lumped in the supernatural aspects of the storyline as just representing more of the silliness, and I think that put me in such a negative emotional state that when we get the Scooby-Doo moment and the supernatural stuff is revealed to have a naturalistic explanation, with Holmes having correctly deduced what was really going on, I still felt cranky about it. It felt to me that the movie hadn’t earned the right for me to withhold my judgement on that point, that it had demonstrated so much willingness to mess with the canon that it was completely credible that they’d also have a Harry Potter-style magic underlying the main villain’s actions, so when they flipped that at the end it was too late for me to forgive it. I felt like saying, “Yeah, you tricked me. Good for you. But you tricked me by disappointing me so much that I honestly believed you were willing to make a movie that was that stupid. You actually weren’t willing to do that, and you get some points for that, but not enough to make me happy with the result.” I should probably give the movie another chance, watching it from the beginning knowing where it’s going, and see if that part doesn’t bother me as much.

    I think in a way I was spoiled by another adaptation of a much-loved work of literature: The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson made many similar choices to those that Ritchie made with Holmes: plot and character changes, big action set-pieces, unrealistic Hollywood moments. But in that case, I was okay with it. I think there was an extra degree of concern for lovers of the original that Jackson showed, that Guy Ritchie didn’t. But that’s probably a topic for a different post.

  28. #28 Greg Laden
    January 1, 2010

    John, I agree with almost everything you say, but I found all of that to be interesting and refreshing rather than annoying. (And I’m not a mere dabbler in the original Holmes … I’ve read it all and I’m actually writing about it. Slowly).

    It happens that I watched a Brett film the day before seeing this film, too. You can’t really reproduce that easily. Though I would welcome a well done effort to do the original style Holmes (and Brett’s interpretation is perfect).

  29. #29 John Callender
    January 2, 2010

    Yeah, it was your love of the movie, despite your evident love of the original stories, that forced me to sit down and consider whether I was being fair in my disappointment. And it’s certainly a valid point that holding any movie to the standard of the Jeremy Brett Holmes is silly; that adaptation (much of it, anyway) was the kind of magic that comes along rarely if ever.

    As I say, I think I was spoiled by LOTR. As I was by the Joe Wright adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, despite feeling, going into it, that there was no point at all in anyone trying to update the 1995 BBC adaptation with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Wright really shocked me with that movie by being able to make a version of the story that was faithful to the original material and not at all derivative of the earlier adaptation, while being completely wonderful in its own right.

    But again, I digress.

  30. #30 Greg
    January 8, 2010

    Greg,

    Completely agree with your take on the movie. As an ardent Holmes fan (and of Jeremy Brett) I was concerned that they would dilute the canon. But I was pleasantly surprised at how they were able to be true to the old and yet add such interesting new. I, too, was concerned that they were going to have actual supernatural nonsense in the movie, which would have completely ruined it for me, but was pleasantly surprised at the end. Overall an excellent movie!

    Greg

  31. #31 Stephanie Z
    January 11, 2010

    Finally saw it yesterday, and you’re dead on about having read the canon. There were so many little treats in this movie that were dependent on knowing your Holmes: oblique references, moments in which it looked like something dumb was about to happen, but if you trusted it to revert to canon, you could giggle along.

    And oh, the music! I admit to some prior bias on the violin music, but it was so nice to see it be so non-Western, particularly in contrast to everything else.

  32. #32 micro sd
    January 26, 2010

    The views of Victorian London are just as seductive as Downey Jr, who exudes an aura of troubled genius, though that’s all the information you’re likely to retain, as there’s rarely a moment to think between all the fights and explosions.

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