I Detected Some Holmes Under All That Sherlock

Filed under:Movies,Reviews — posted by Anwyn on January 4, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

Warning: The following are the disjointed ramblings of somebody trying to return to blogging after a months-long absence. Read at your own peril. Spoilers are few, but this will likely only make sense if you’ve seen the movie and/or read some Sherlock Holmes.


Kyle Smith really, really didn’t like Sherlock Holmes. Despite a large and growing set of indications that his tastes and mine are quite dissimilar, I have every respect for his powers of analysis and rhetoric and thus almost let his opinion talk me out of seeing it. That would have been a huge mistake.

I must be getting soft in my old age, because at first glance, almost everything Kyle said about the differences between Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock and Conan Doyle’s seems true, and yet I found the movie to be great fun, brainy, and even very moving. Almost everything Kyle said about the banal one-liners is true too, but he apparently let them overshadow the real dialogue, of which there was plenty, and the clever pacing and excellent fight scenes, which took what what is by now a very old formula about the working of Holmes’s mind and gave it new life.

This movie is like Sherlock Holmes as the Illusionist Meets the Pirates of the Caribbean at Fight Club, but for all that, it’s a great movie in which the spirit of Holmes does, in fact, despite his seeming differences from his literary namesake, rise again.

When I saw the trailer I knew the movie would be radically unlike Doyle’s Holmes. I was originally prepared to like it in spite of that–Kurt Loder’s comment that they should have called it Robert Downey Junior instead of Sherlock Holmes was right on the money–but I was not prepared for both how much I did like it and how much of Holmes still lived in it. Ritchie and his screenwriters accomplished something I wouldn’t have believed possible if I’d anticipated it beforehand: They made a new Holmes true to the old one. People keep telling me J.J. Abrams has accomplished this with Star Trek, too, but I’ve yet to suspend my disbelief for a couple hours and watch it. The thing is, with this Holmes, the supposed differences from Doyle turn out to be mostly on the surface, and they’re mostly showed up only by other cinematic renderings of Holmes. They tend to sink in significance or disappear altogether when compared to Doyle’s actual stories.

I didn’t think to ask this question before going to the movie, but it became glaringly obvious after it: What more is there to say with the old Holmes? I never saw any Basil Rathbone, but I’ve seen all of Jeremy Brett. Despite Ace’s annoyance with the latter, he’s a very true-to-Doyle Holmes. Do any of us really want to see somebody else try to pull off what Kyle describes as a “detached don,” which I don’t think is an entirely accurate description of Doyle’s Sherlock anyway? The fresh take on the old Holmes took me by delighted surprise, much like my reaction to the new Prince Caspian. This purist is going soft, but really, that started happening a long time ago. It only took a couple Harry Potter films to make me realize how bad movies are when they stick too tight to the books they come from.

So, what actually makes RDJ’s Holmes different and yet the same? Despite Kyle’s litany of protest, there are only two aspects in which this Holmes is overtly opposite to Doyle’s: His neglected personal hygiene, the lack of which is bemoaned by Watson, whereas Doyle’s Holmes was as particular about his cleanliness “as a cat,” and his obvious emotional precariousness–and even the latter, arguably, can be forced back into the Doyle narrative. Watson says repeatedly that emotion was anathema to Holmes, but so what? That doesn’t mean he could stop feeling it. Literary contrivance aside, no human who can be portrayed on screen is literally without emotion. Downey’s and Ritchie’s Holmes wrestles with it, crams it away, puts it aside, much like a volatile Spock. Just because Doyle’s Watson didn’t see it didn’t mean it wasn’t there, and Downey walks a very fine, very Hugh-Laurie-as-House line in portraying the struggle. It was touching. Kyle throws in “fly-catching” as part of the hygiene complaint, but this Holmes experiments on everything, from flies on up to his and Watson’s dog. And that is canonical: In A Study in Scarlet, “young Stamford” describes a Holmes who would be willing to give a friend poison, just to have an accurate idea of the effects, though “to do him justice,” Stamford knows Sherlock would take the stuff himself with equal willingness. The fly experiments were not at all out of the realm of Doyle’s Holmes.

Kyle also takes issue with the abounding fisticuffs, but as my friend observed leaving the theater: “People don’t seem to realize that Holmes was a badass.” Doyle repeatedly has Watson remarking on Holmes’s boxing prowess, and Holmes himself was constantly reminding Watson to bring his gun, loaded, to the denouement of the case. Although I think the movie’s sword in the walking stick actually derived from Lord Peter Wimsey, that too was a nice touch. What is a guy who never faces his hated emotions to do? Work off steam in a scientifically satisfying way, of course. The fact that it also comes in service of his vocation, beating up enemy watchmen and thugs, is a bonus.

Moving, check. Fun, check. I also said it was brainy. You actually do need to have read quite a bit of Doyle’s Holmes to appreciate this one. Canonical dialogue is woven throughout the movie in such a way as to give Doyle’s lines a hilarious twist, such as Holmes’s praise of Watson’s silence as companionable courtesy, when really Watson is seething at some episode of Holmesian boorishness and is about to sucker-punch him. This kind of thing happens again and again and is interspersed with new lines quite worthy of Doyle, as when Lestrade says his men “are in the process” of bringing up a coffin from a crypt. Surveying the frightened constables standing by, Holmes murmurs, “What stage of the process? Contemplative?” In addition, the movie managed to completely sucker me as to plot, something I admit is not very difficult to do, but I’ll just say the plot turned out to be a lot more Doylesque than I would have supposed.

I cannot say enough good things about Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. More than any actor I’ve seen lately, and I admit I’ve been watching far more TV than movies lately, RDJ is capable of putting himself into a character without turning the character into himself. The links between older Holmeses (well, just Jeremy Brett, since I haven’t seen the others), this Holmes, and House, M.D., are fabulously obvious, and Downey brings all that and even more–a Johnny Depp-like talent for caricature combined with his own unique stamp that I don’t know enough about acting, really, to describe. I could watch him forever, which is why his threat to stop acting before making any more of these Holmes movies has depressed me anew now that I’ve seen this one. The female characters were miscast, sadly, and while I might ultimately agree with this reviewer’s opinion that the movie as a whole wasn’t all it could have been, I think it came close, and I disagree with his take that it overstayed its welcome in its flashy filmmaking and long sequences. The Pirates of the Caribbean and Matrix franchises have set the high-water mark for terrible and pointless action sequences that take up two-thirds of the film. Sherlock Holmes flashed where it should and stopped when it ought.

Lastly: Is this a chick flick? Robert Downey Jr. spends a lot of time shirtless, and as every exasperated male knows, that kind of guy who clearly has a lot going on in the emotional department but hates to show it is supposed to be the chick magnet to end all others. I’ll just say there’s a lot more going on here than just the scientifically planned solar-plexus jabs and the supposed black magic.

Follow-up: Shorter Kyle, Shorter Me, Same Sherlock


  1. Wow. I wish I’d brought my Sherlock Holmes volume with me now. I thought about it, but decided it was too bulky. I’ve only read a couple of the stories (though I’ve watched quite a few of the Jeremy Brett episodes), but now I want to read them all and then run straight to the theater! I’ve always liked RDJ, and lamented the sporadic nature of his career. I used to hate Jude Law, but he grew on me after I saw Cold Mountain, and I fell in love with him in The Holiday. The movie was a bit corny in places, I suppose, but he was absolutely adorable and believable as the the bashful single father of two girls. You couldn’t not love him in that.

    I definitely want to see this now. Thanks.

    Comment by Bumble — January 5, 2010 @ 6:25 am

  2. So you see this Holmes as Hugh Laurie as House and Kyle sees him as Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent? 8^)

    I have noticed at other sites, that people unfamiliar with the stories have enjoyed it very much; and the ‘traditionalists’ are divided much like yourself and Kyle. (Although I wouldn’t guess at the actual split ratio.)

    Comment by andycanuck — January 5, 2010 @ 7:40 am

  3. I’m a Holmes enthusiast and have been for a very long time. I’ve read each one of the stories multiple times and Brett’s Holmes series often serves as background noise while I work. I loved the movie. I see it as being something Doyle could easily have written were he alive today.

    Comment by Crabtree — January 5, 2010 @ 9:56 am

  4. I was a big Holmes fan growing up. I guess I’m ok with these sorts of remakes as long as the final product is good, and in this case it was pretty entertaining.

    Shame about Rachel McAdams though. She’s usually so wonderful, but in Sherlock Holmes she seemed off.

    Comment by dorkafork — January 5, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

  5. The Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle is different from the detective portrayed by Basil Rathbone and later by Jeremy Brett. Screen-writers (working after Agatha Christie developed the “cozy” detective genre) took the violin-playing logician and jammed him into the cozy archetype.

    To wit, relatively few people have any concept of Doyle’s Holmes because they’ve more recently seen a film adaptation than read a book. Because we’ve seen a Holmes movie since we’ve read a Holmes book, we forget the hardboiled aspects of Doyle’s character who moved comfortably through the roughest parts of London’s underclass.

    Comment by Steve Poling — January 5, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  6. I love Dr. House and i always watch this TV series after my day job.`-‘

    Comment by Evan Nelson — May 9, 2010 @ 5:26 am

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