Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

06 January, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

I was a bit hesitant going into the theatre to see Sherlock Holmes. The trailer I'd seen made it look like the Arthur Conan Doyle's venerable detective had been transformed into an action hero replete with slow motion and hectic scenes with shots lasting no longer than a half a second, as is the current trend.

It begins with Holmes, played by Robert Downey, Jr., descending into an underground chamber to disrupt an occult ceremony. As he notices someone carrying a lantern up the stairs, we are privy to his plan of action. It unfolds with Holmes narrating exactly how he will inflict pain upon the man as we see how each blow is to be executed. The swings are shown in normal speed while the blows themselves are done in gut-wrenching slow motion. When the two meet, the fight goes exactly as Holmes had planned. Along with the aid of Dr. Watson (Jude Law), Holmes stops the occult sacrifice and it revealed that Lord Blackwood is behind it. He is imprisoned and then hanged.

The opening sequence lays out the template for the film. Late Victorian London is rendered as drab and grey while Holmes and Watson can now be counted on for plenty of fights. The film then slows down and we learn of Holmes' disappointment that Watson is to be married and take up residence with his wife elsewhere, thusly splitting up the team. One of the best scenes involves Watson and his fiancée, Mary, meeting Holmes for dinner. When she asks our sleuth to turn his powers of observation upon her, he obliges. He points out, amongst other things, the untanned part of her finger where a ring once held firm and pronounces her as having disposed of a husband. Mary throws her wine in his face and informs him that she is, in fact, a widow.

Other than this scene, Downey's Holmes comes across more as a class clown in need of attention than Doyle's misanthrope. The literary incarnation of Holmes sat at home alternately piercing his veins with cocaine and morphine to distract himself when there were no mysteries afoot. Here, director Guy Ritchie and his screenwriters have constructed a Holmes that seems to want others to pay him attention and drag him out to play. Instead of passing the time on narcotics, the new Holmes engages in fisticuffs for sport and money which allows the audience to once again follow Holmes' plan of attack and watch punches in glorious slow motion.

When it appears that Lord Blackwood has risen from the dead, London is thrown into a panic and Holmes and Watson are on the case. Also reappearing is Irene Adler, the only person to have beaten the new Holmes, but one of a handful to have slipped past the consulting detective's deductions in print. In the film, Adler is a love interest in contrast to how Doyle described Holmes' interest in her: "It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler."

Downey and Law have great chemistry here but I came away disappointed that Holmes was so childish. If his possessiveness, his desire to constantly be the center of attention make a good Sherlock Holmes for you, then go for it. If you like a character who seems to just be looking for someone to pull him out of his shell, this film is for you. For my part, I enjoy Doyle's character because he doesn't like people, because he is cold, and because he revels in his rationality. For him, love is something other people feel and react to – something which he can only observe. It was very disappointing to see Downey attempt to hide a schoolboy crush.

One can surely run up a list of differences between Ritchie's Holmes and Doyle's. In the end, though, people take cultural artifacts and reshape them to their own purposes. While sadly disappointed in this new incarnation of the character, Sherlock Holmes was still fun, at times. I enjoyed watching Downey and Law do their sleuthing because they work well together but, as my Dulcinea opined, they don't do enough of it. Indeed, sleuthing is generally reduced here to prologues for fights. There were some funny throwaway lines and great overacting by Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood but all too often I felt like I was watching a setup for fisticuffs.

I loved Philippe Rousselot's cinematography. The lifeless colors created a Victorian London full of unease and a general sense that something is amiss. And I thought his camera movement and choice of angles added more excitement than the dozens of punches and quick cuts. I loved how the cameras followed the police carriages in the opening – something was truly afoot! And I'm a sucker for the shot in a chase where the camera is upside down and moves to be parallel with ground.

While I don't begrudge Guy Ritchie for reimagining Sherlock Holmes, I do wish he'd done more than simply adding every 21st century action movie cliché.
|| Palmer, 8:22 AM


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