I watched Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes twice in the same day. It wasn’t that I loved it so much the first time around, but I couldn’t understand half of the lines. Robert Downey Jr. had pulled off a perfectly acceptable English accent for Chaplin (1992), so I was not really worried about that. The problem was not with the accent but with the volume. Downey and Mark Strong, playing Holmes’ nemesis Lord Blackwood, mumble through half of the film. What ever happened to the notion of actors studying elocution? I am actually glad I watched this for a second time, though, since was ready to write it off as a pretty silly adaptation the first time, and actually enjoyed it with the second viewing.
Director Guy Ritchie and a team of five credited screenwriters did an admirable job stripping away all of the paraphernalia associated with the character of Sherlock Holmes which were never part of Arthur Conan Doyle’s vision, but were added by illustrators of the Doyle books and earlier film and TV adaptations. Gone are the double-billed deerstalker cap and the tweed cape, the gooseneck pipe and (unfortunately, for the sake of clarity) the urbane manner of speaking. What is left is an athletic, fashionable Holmes. The casting of Downey was controversial not only because of his nationality, but movie and Sherlock fans complained online that at 44 he is too old to play the detective. But Downey, who obviously did many of his own stunts, some of which are quite intense, brings a new physicality to the character was in Conan Doyle’s original depiction on the page, but lost in every previous adaptation for the screen. Doyle depicted Holmes as an avid boxer, and a student of Bartitsu, a type of hybrid martial arts popular with both men and women in Victorian England, which become important elements in film, where some of the most exciting moments have Downey plotting how to assail adversaries twice his size with cool calculation. As described by Doyle, Holmes favors a threadbare dressing gown and doesn’t allow his landlady to move anything in his disorganized mass of papers and case paraphernalia. But there are some problems with this new image of Holmes, such as him wearing a squashed fedora, a style of hat that did not become popular until a good 20 years after the time of the story
Watson, as interpreted by Jude Law, is not the fat bumbling old man playing for laughs, like the sidekick to Basil Rathbone played by Nigel Bruce, but a sharp doctor and former military man with a weakness for gambling, a near equal to his famous partner, who is driven to the point of exasperation by his friend’s mood swings. Holmes’ use of cocaine when he did not have a case to stimulate his mind, is a detail from Doyle that was glossed over in most film adaptations until The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), but is out in the open here, with Watson nagging him to give it up.
While Downey and Law do a good job with the roles that have been reinvented (or taken closer back to the source) for this adaptation, nearly everything else about this new adaptation is problematic. Rather than select one of the many good Holmes stories that Conan Doyle left behind, a team of writers created an original story. That in itself does not constitute hubris in my opinion. The story starts with a buggy chase and Holmes and Watson rushing to stop a ritualistic slaying of a hypnotized girl. Conan Doyle was very much into the supernatural, and this would have been right up his street. The problem comes later in the story. The girl was to be the sixth in a series of human sacrifices, as part of the vast conspiracy of a secret society that is invading British Parliament. This is where the script strives for an enormous scale that is not really necessary, and actually makes the movie less, not more interesting, just because it is so silly. Holmes’ nemesis Lord Blackwood is out to seize control of the House of Lords, and—in what seems to be a desperate attempt to make the story relevant to the American audiences that made the big budget possible—he is also out to win back the American colonies, despite the fact that the American Revolutionary War had ended more than a century earlier. On the other hand, the score by Hans Zimmer, featuring Romanian-sounding violins, banjos, and pianos with rusty strings, is so fun you sometimes forget how ridiculous the plot is.
Downey and Law are good in the central roles, and Mark Price is passable as the villain, but the female leads are horribly cast. Rachel McAdams plays Irene Adler, one of the most notable female characters in the Sherlock Holmes canon, despite appearing in only one story. Conan Doyle described Adler as being originally from New Jersey, so McAdams can be forgiven for not even attempting an English accent, but Adler is also described as being a thoroughly cultivated women, and McAdams’ intonation could only be described as 21st century Canadian. Kelly Reilly, in a small roles as Watson’s fiancée is nearly catatonic. Bronagh Gallagher in a one-minute appearance as a palm reader does more acting than the other two combined. Maybe Guy Ritchie just doesn’t care about female characters.