Sherlock Holmes – Movie Mutterings

I’ve mentioned once or twice before that I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan. That’s a fan of the original books rather than any movie or TV interpretations, you understand. While I’ll generally enjoy watching a Holmes movie or TV show, they rarely manage to capture the spirit of Conan Doyle’s stories, and all too often fall into the trap of copying from earlier (bad) movies rather than looking at the source material. Personally, I detest the classic Basil Rathbone movies – not so much for the tendency to have Holmes wearing a deerstalker hat at, err, the drop of a hat, but for portraying Watson as a bumbling idiot, which in the stories he most definitely is not – he may seem dim at times, but that’s because he’s standing next to Holmes, and everyone seems a bit dim when he’s around.

For me, the most honourable exception to this was the moderately long running TV series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. The adaptations were mostly faithful to the original stories[1], and Brett played Holmes in a manner which suggested that he’d actually read the source material. And Watson, played initially by David Burke, then by Edward Hardwicke, was far from being a fool. All very well done, and the standard by which all Holmes adaptations should be judged.

There were some moderately good adaptations made in the 1960s, with Peter Cushing as Holmes – not badly done, but some of the changes to the stories were odd. I can understand longer stories being simplified to fit the time available, but having done that, odd side plots were actually added in some cases, which made little sense to me.

All of which leads me up to the new Sherlock Holmes movie. I’d heard about this some time ago, and initial reports led me to believe this might be something I wouldn’t appreciate. Directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey, Jr as Holmes, it sounded suspiciously like it might be a silly action-fest…

I saw TV ads and trailers which looked intriguing enough to persuade me to book a ticket[2]. Besides, it was a good excuse to see the shiny new Odeon at the MetroCentre. Getting there took a while, as the bus was stuck in traffic. And the cinema was busy, with a long queue at the box office, and even long queues at the fancy self-service machines. But I got my ticket in plenty of time and sat down to watch the movie.

And, well. You know, for a twenty-first century actionish take on Holmes, it wasn’t at all bad. Certainly liberties were taken – Downey’s Holmes was a little too scruffy all the time, rather than just some of the time. The buddy movie bickering between Holmes and Watson was pure Hollyweird rather than genuine Victorian gentleman stuff, but it did manage to establish the mutual respect and affection that the men had, which would have been harder to establish otherwise. Jude Law’s Watson, however, was frankly bloody excellent – intelligent, charming, and a useful man to have at your side when there’s trouble around.

There is, of course, a lot of trouble around, which is where the movie makes its biggest departure from the source. In the original stories, most of the crimes are small-scale villainy, and in some no crimes at all are committed. But this is a blockbuster movie, so there has to be a seriously big and seriously fiendish plot, with a Evil Villain out to take over the country, and subsequently the world. The villain has some tricks, and a Fiendish Device, and is clearly what you might call a bit differently sane. In short, he’s a nineteenth century Bond Villain. All of which isn’t very Conan Doyle, but it does end up being enormous fun.

Supporting characters include Holmes’s old adversary Irene Adler – in an unknown adventure, their paths have crossed for a second time after the events of A Scandal in Bohemia, and it seems she outwitted him that time, too. They clearly have a fascination for each other, but who is her secretive employer[3], and what does he want?

Also along for the ride is Mary Morstan, soon to marry Watson. Her original appearance was in The Sign of Four, but that’s been dropped – here, she’s just someone that Watson has met. Watson is preparing to move out of Baker Street, and Holmes is not at all happy about it, which is the source of much of the movie’s humour.

And of course, there’s London itself. Lovingly created, with streets full of mud and horse poop, and Tower Bridge under construction, it forms the perfect backdrop to the story.

So, overall, this was a nicely entertaining movie. Not particularly authentic in terms of the original stories, but getting the spirit of them far more right than I was expecting, even down to including authentic lines of Holmes dialogue from time to time. I’ll be quite happy to watch it again when the DVD comes out.

[1] Some changes were made here and there, but none were too annoying
[2] Did it online while I was in Wales last week
[3] OK, it’s not actually a secret, but I’m trying to keep this spoiler-free.