Film criticism by Ian Kay.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Criticism of “Sherlock Holmes” (2009), dir. Guy Ritchie

With “Sherlock Holmes”, Guy Ritchie has taken a classic character and the world he lives in and forced it into his own predetermined style. Ritchie, a slave to slick and empty effects, had apparently no intention of artfully adapting his work in order to more appropriately address the subject matter.

The basic premise is fine: Holmes (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) must discover how a murderer and self-proclaimed sorcerer, Lord Blackwood, has defied death and coerced certain members of Parliament into joining in his plans for world domination. Professor Moriarty, the infamous archenemy of Holmes, has positioned a love interest, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), to confound Holmes’s efforts. We don’t discover Moriarty’s true master plan until the end.

Ritchie shows us a drab London, dirtied by industrial developments and the stereotypical rag-tag London street folk that you might see in a television version of a Dickens novel. The effects to enlarge this vision of the city are off-putting and unnecessary. There is a slickness to the browns and grays that betrays the attempt at grittiness, and it sets a false tone that collides with the late 19th-century time period. The central group of characters are a better fit, as he remains largely faithful to the original relationships of Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson (the house keeper), and Inspector Lestrade, who are all well cast.

There are many challenges facing a filmmaker who is attempting to reintroduce a famous fictional character. Foremost, they must try to modernize without losing the essence of the character. They must also attempt to stay true to the big, basic facts surrounding the character, including personality traits, important elements of costume, relationships with key supporting characters and the accurate inclusion of well-known subplots.

Ritchie stays true enough to the big basic facts, but fails in portraying the essence, which is that Holmes is acutely aware of everything, whether or not he necessarily understands it right away. But Sherlock Holmes is not a buffoon. He is socially awkward, a heroin addict with fits of depression and self-neglect, and he is at a loss with how to deal with women. He does not, however, wander around in an uninterrupted state of hangover and mild confusion. Holmes, as Ritchie gives him to us, is so often out of touch that his masterful deductive revelations are jolting.

Irene Adler dupes Holmes extraordinarily easily.  She, who we are told has tricked Holmes before,  is supposed to be extremely clever. This time, though, she slips him wine with a sleeping agent. As Holmes passes out, he notices a syringe on the table, which he deduces was used to inject the poison through the cork of the wine bottle. So we are to believe that Sherlock Holmes, who can tell a person’s profession by glancing at their fingernails, fails to notice (until it is much too late) a syringe lying next to the wine bottle he is pouring from? Adler, so clever a thief  – who knows Holmes so well – carelessly leaves the syringe out? Who are these people?

Further along in the story, Watson must scold Holmes for stupidly using up all of his bullets while trying to shoot an enemy who is on the other side of a wall. Since when did Holmes need common sense lessons from Watson? While Adler figures out how to disengage a deadly weapon under the floor of Parliament, Holmes is busy wrestling with a giant. Since when did Holmes leave the big solutions to others?

What Downey’s fumbling Holmes allows Ritchie to do is include more fights and explosions, often in slo-mo. However, even these sequences are missed opportunities. At one point, as explosions erupt from all sides, Watson disappears in a blaze of fire. Dramatic music fills the air, Holmes and Adler slide into slow motion, and we are left to wonder how or if Watson has survived. But Ritchie doesn’t even have the sense to let the scene sit long enough for us to decide if we care that Watson might be dead. Within moments a cop runs up to Holmes and warns him to run, and, oh by the way, Watson is alive. This diffuses any suspense and allows the camera to shoot off to the next action sequence. I think Ritchie might just pass out from anxiety if he was forced to leave his camera on a scene and let it live and breath on its own.

I will say that the fighting sequences in which Holmes uses his clear logic are impressive. We hear Holmes’s thoughts as he rapidly plans his next fighting moves, his body moving in slow motion. We then cut to a normal speed version and see the plan in full effect. This cuts closer to the essence of Holmes – even when he must be physical, he is calculating. It is a perfect example of when Ritchie’s effects should be used, rather than applying them seemingly at random throughout. Unfortunately, there are many fight scenes, some of them entirely too drawn out and predictable, and for whatever reason, Holmes does not manage to engage the calculating methods during most of them.

Downey plays Sherlock Holmes with a certain amount of charm and wit. He has several funny one-liners and his bouts of discovery are convincing, something that only an intelligent actor has a chance at conveying believably. But he is sloppy when giving us the unengaged Holmes. During these scenes he plays Holmes with an aimless and childish air that leaves us very little room to either respect him or, at the least, be fascinated by him. Jude Law does an excellent job with the version of Watson that he has been given. He portrays Holmes’s sidekick with an appropriately conservative manner and a controlled excitement that is betrayed only when Holmes entices him with adventure. McAdams is unremarkable as the thief and love interest of Holmes. She has yet to distinguish herself as anything more than a respectable actress who will probably not ruin any movie in which she appears.

I wasn’t going to bother to see this film, but then I decided to give it a chance because I love the original books and many of the movie and television versions and because Downey is such a great actor. I am sorely disappointed to see that it is as bad as I had feared.

R.I.P. Jeremy Brett.