This unwieldy title marks the second of the “new” Sherlock Holmes movies: new in the way that the entire Dr Who concept was revamped to appeal to a new audience after several years in nostalgic semi-retirement. The whole Holmes industry had previously been run by those who lived in the golden era of Conan Doyle’s books and Basil Rathbone’s classical and authoritative, if somewhat stiff interpretation. There have been plenty more along the way, no fewer than 71 are listed on Wikipedia, though some were restricted to foreign voice recordings, sitcom skits etc.
Anyway, the producers of the “new” series thought it needed jazzing up a bit. Less of the cerebral deduction, for which Holmes is justifiably famed, more about action and adventure, with a few whizzy shots to demonstrate the superior Holmes brainpower in action.
To do this, they have accumulated the unlikely and decidedly American figure of Robert Downey Jr to play their Holmes. Downey, you will recall, made an excellent job of playing the very real and very British Charlie Chaplin, but in adopting Holmes he has chosen a down-at-heel style, more suited to a gritty journo than the greatest fictional detective of the modern era. This Holmes is well equipped to handle fist fights, which he does with monotonous regularity, guns and any number of other weapons. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking he is more of a brawler than anything else. Granted that Conan Doyle’s Holmes had his down moments (think of his depressive spells under the influence of cocaine), but this Holmes would keep a modern therapist busy for years to straighten out his quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Every Holmes must have a sidekick, and Downey has Jude Law. Law looks like a fine, upstanding citizen with a medical pedigree, but he is feistier than most. Something of a dead-eye with his service revolver, Law’s Watson seems to match his brighter colleague in the adventure stakes, and also lacks much of the bafflement typical of his predecessors.
Some of the other cast of characters are original, though Jared Harris’s attempt at a sinister Moriaty goes slightly off the rails, ending somewhere between scorn and ribaldry. Then there is the curious case of Stephen Fry as Holmes’s older, smarter brother – and particularly what persuaded the director that a scene was required with Mr Fry naked and looking a tad chubby. So far as I can see it must only have been included to give the audience a titter. Very strange! Meanwhile Noomi Rapace, so brilliant in the original Swedish version of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, contrives to look very uncomfortable in her first English language movie – like she wishes she were somewhere else entirely.
Other characters appear to be fictional, though it may be that my memories of Doyle are fading fast. That said, they do populate a truly splendid version of Victorian London, and in due course the grandest parts of Europe too (the Paris opéra and Mozart’s Don Giovanni get a look in!). How far it is true to 1891 I can’t be sure, but As my 13-year old son pointed out, this movie plays very fast and loose with historical accuracy in at least one respect: the presence of splendid machine guns and machine pistols, long, long before such devices were ever invented, let alone reliable.
This plot is high-class hokum par excellence (my mother later declared that she had no idea what was going on), involving gypsies, ambassadors, a lot of expendable baddies and assorted other people who might have had some relevance to the plot but were otherwise pure cardboard.
There is one interesting facet to the fast-moving action: Students of the Conan Doyle oeuvre will know that in The Final Problem the great man killed off his character in a fall from the Reichenbach Falls while fighting with Moriaty, but such was the public outcry that Holmes had to be brought back to life. This story bears little relation to that tale, though it does traverse Europe by train routes and the castles. However, Holmes does fall headlong into a waterfall, along with the Professor. His return from the dead is rather quicker than in the Conan Doyle version. Moriaty’s whereabouts are unknown…
None of the above will put off fans of the “new Holmes”, most of whom are happy to enjoy a rip-roaring adventure and won’t give two figs about authenticity to the original books. I would question whether it is ethically sound for the producers to bastardise Holmes and Watson in this way when they should be finding some true originality with which to entertain us, but they won’t give a toss. The only sound they will care about is the kerching! of the cash registers as punters queue out of the picture house to see their epic. And admittedly the multiplex screen was pretty darned full.
Why was I there, you ask? My son Adam fancied it, of course!!