Sherlock Holmes ****½
Since the early days of cinema filmmakers have looked to classic literary works for inspirations for their films, the novel adaptation having just as big a place in cinema history as more original cinematic works. The same is still quite true today but perhaps in a different way. While literal adaptations of classic novels do still show up from time to time – a la the recent A Christmas Carol – many classic novels have been adapted so many times for both the big and small screen that there is little left to get out of truly faithful adaptations so a new approach has come into being, one that can be described in once simple word – re-imagining. The updating of a classic literary work to make it more modern is something that most of us will have seen in way or another but never before has there been one that has come with such controversy as Guy Ritchie’s 21st century take on Sherlock Holmes. Essentially taking a character that we all know thanks to numerous portrayals in many adaptations and turning him into some kind of Victorian action hero, there has been some criticism that the original intention of author Arthur Conan Doyle has been lost, despite claims by Ritchie that they have actually stuck quite faithfully to Doyle’s original writing and suggestions that this depiction of Holmes may actually be closer to Doyle’s original intention, the version of the character we are used to seeing in fact being the unfaithful interpretation. Whether or not the film is a truly faithful interpretation isn’t really of much significance, though, as long as people actually like the interpretation and judging by the extremely positive response thus far it is fair to assume that this 21st century repackaging of a well worn out literary character is winning big with audiences. And quite deservedly so I might add.
After finally catching serial killer and occult ‘sorcerer’ Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his assistant Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) can close yet another successful case. But when Blackwood mysteriously returns from the grave and resumes his killing spree, Holmes must take up the hunt once again. Contending with his partner’s new fiancée Mary (Kelly Reilly) and Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), the dimwitted head of Scotland Yard, the dauntless detective must unravel the clues that will lead him into a twisted web of murder, deceit, and black magic – and the deadly embrace of temptress Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) who has an agenda of her own. However, as Blackwood’s devilish plans unfold and his seemingly supernatural abilities reveal themselves, Holmes finds himself facing not only his biggest and toughest case yet, but also a plot that could change the face of the whole world.
Despite what many literary purists will inevitably say, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is not an adaptation that will make Arthur Conan Doyle roll in his grave (or rise from it to enact revenge) – quite the opposite in fact. This interpretation may be sold as a modern take on the source material but in many ways it is actually pretty old fashioned. There is a distinct sense of authenticity to proceedings, with the look, sound and feel of 1890s London being convincingly captured in everything from production design to costumes and performances to dialogue. While the film has been represented as a ‘modern’ take on the Holmes character none of the essence of the period has been compromised. So, no 21st century dialogue has been slipped in to bring in the 21st century audience. Just the action has been amped up, making this interpretation of Holmes much faster paced than past ones. And for anyone worried about the action compromising the integrity of Doyle’s signature creation, there is no need to fear, as the action sequences merely fill in details implied in the original stories. Doyle would say that Holmes apprehends or arrests the bad guy. Here we see HOW he does so. After all, the bad guys wouldn’t go down without a fight would they? So, in short, this is a grittier and more down to earth Holmes than we are used to, but still Holmes nonetheless. And the action sequences are just as period authentic as everything else in the film, not to mention being extremely thrilling and quite smartly executed. This is particularly the case with the fight sequences which we are shown first in slow motion, accompanied by Holmes’ musings (presented as voiceover narration) on how best to fight his opponent, then at normal speed as he implements his attack. This approach is smart and original, giving us an insight into Holmes’ distinctive reasoning process, and means that the fights actually serve a purpose in the development of the Holmes character, rather than existing just of the sake of action sequences. Authenticity is present in every facet of the film, particularly the performances, with everyone doing a great job. Robert Downey Jr. is superbly entertaining as Holmes, delivering a fresh and unique take on the character, here presented as brash and rough around the edges, completely unlike past portrayals of the character. He doesn’t just entertain but convinces as well, particularly thanks to a very convincing British accent. His Holmes is one that we can both enjoy watching and genuinely give a damn about, something that is crucial to the success of the film. He isn’t alone, though, with the supporting cast also of a high standard. Jude Law’s Watson is also different to the character we know well, here a mind to rival Holmes and also a tough individual who comes to Holmes’ rescue more than a couple of times (without ever diminishing Holmes’ presence though). Law too is both hugely entertaining and convincing. Rachel McAdams is also very good, being excellently seductive and sly as the only adversary who has ever outsmarted Holmes, while Mark Strong makes for a superbly sinister villain, even if his character is out-shadowed slightly by mystery villain who is present in the background. This is not the fault of Strong though. The success of the performances can also be attributed to the script as well as the actors. As well as sounding very period authentic, the dialogue is also very sharp and smart and sometimes wittily humorous. The writing for Holmes is particularly effective, making us believe that Holmes really is a genius detective. The writing is also very good with regard to plot. The story is very strong and should appeal to both Doyle purists and mainstream moviegoers alike, being very respectful of its source material whilst mixing things up so as to ensure that things never seen in any way tired or predictable. So, overall, Sherlock Holmes is a re-imagining that works. Both smart and fun, it is an adaptation that brings enough new to the fold to attract a new generation of super sleuth fans while also showing respect for its inspirations so as not to alienate those who appreciate Arthur Conan Doyle’s original writings. And with the ending setting things up for a sequel you are sure to leave the cinema eagerly anticipating the follow-up. It is elementary my dear film fan.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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