(As an aside, I believe Jude Law is the heir apparent to the title “Person Who Is In Every Movie Made.” One of his predecessors, as an example, was Donald Sutherland, who was actually in every movie made during the 1970s)
As you may know, I have been a devoted Holmsian since childhood. I’ve read all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories multiple times, and I could bore you for hours with Holmes commentary and trivia. But you can relax; my normal methods of boring people are still working well enough that I will hold off including the Holmes material for the time being, aside from this posting. My real point is this: I am not the sort of purist who insists upon complete faithfulness to ACD’s original stories. After all, Mr. Doyle himself falls short on that account in many instances, changing the names of peripheral characters from story to story, and even forgetting in a few instances that Dr. Watson has become a married man. Though if you are that sort of purist, I have a quiet word of advice: Stay away from this film. But for the casual purist like myself, this film is a hoot and a holler and a half!
I’m not going to give the film a conventional review in this space. If you follow movie reviews at all, you probably know a lot about it already, so I’m only going to address the points that interest and energize me.
First and foremost, we are treated to a liberal dose of Mr. Downey’s considerable skills as an actor. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen him portray an Englishman; he also did so in the wonderful though little-seen film Restoration, a film that I’m happy to have an excuse to recommend. His performance in SH is spot-on; everything a Downey fan could hope for. A few reviewers of this film have remarked that Downey deserves better material than he’s given here, and though I do not share their antipathy for the screenplay, I will concede that it’s fairly lightweight stuff, albeit with some delightfully witty moments here and there.
Among the supporting characters, Irene Adler, played by Rachel McAdams, is worthy of some discussion. We meet her handkerchief before we meet her. Holmes is in a dirt pit, taking part in an unsanctioned boxing match, when we see a white handkerchief draped over the edge of the ring. It bears the clear monogram ‘IA’ and Holmes is briefly startled when he sees it. I’m proud to say that I immediately realized it had to belong to Irene Adler. She is a character in the Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The opening lines of it go like this:
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind…
…so it was with some delight that I realized she was to be part of the film. There were, to be fair, some significant differences between her literary and cinematic incarnations. In the book, she was a highly successful actress and singer, smart as a whip and able to deceive Holmes through both her cleverness and her performing ability. It is made clear that she and Holmes share a mutual admiration. In the film, she appears to be an actual career criminal, though high-class and apparently successful. Also, it is clearly implied in the film that Irene and Sherlock have had a fling of some sort, whereas this dimension is utterly absent from the book. But like I said earlier, I’m not that kind of purist. The bottom line for me is that she adds some fun to the movie – plus which, it’s nice to see that the filmmakers have read their Doyle.
Some casual Holmes fans may wonder where Professor Moriarty is. After all, isn’t he Sherlock’s main adversary in the books? Well yes and no. Yes, he’s the one bad guy in the literature who seems to truly be Sherlock’s peer, but in fact, he shows up as a featured character in exactly one of Doyle’s stories. He is a peripheral character in another story, and that’s it, aside from Holmes invoking his name in several other stories. I don’t suppose it’s giving anything away to say that Moriarty does show up in the movie, but only slightly, though it seems clear that he is set to take center stage in the sequel.
The biggest stylistic difference between this film and Doyle’s stories is the scale of it, and I don’t have a problem with that. While many of the stories are quiet little affairs that might concern themselves with a single odd murder, a perplexing theft, or a mystifying character, this film is a big, loud blockbuster, brimming with explosions, fires, destruction, and the possibility of most of Parliament being murdered. And that’s as it should be, especially for the first film in a big budget franchise. If I want to see something closer in tone to Doyle’s work, I can always dig up Jeremy Brett’s rendition that played on PBS some years back. This is a different animal, but it remains true enough to the spirit of the original to be a very satisfying movie-going experience.