I hate admitting I am wrong, and like to think it rarely happens, however I have to sheepishly admit that my very low expectations for the new Sherlock Holmes film proved unfounded. I am a huge fan of the books and have watched my favourite screen versions of these stories more times than I would care to admit, so I expect a lot from any new Holmes.
For me the definitive Holmes is Jeremy Brett, who played him in the excellent Granada series, which covered many of the Holmes stories till they were halted by Brett’s untimely death. While I have enjoyed other film and TV versions of Holmes, none have managed to match up to the characters, mysteries and settings I loved in the books in quite the same way as the Granada series. Worst yet, many film and TV versions seem to twist the Holmes character into an unrecognisable caricature, losing the brilliance that makes the stories so unique and the character of Holmes so fascinating.
I can’t help cringing when I see the character transformed into a straight laced old fuddy-duddy, a young Casanova or worst of all someone illogical. Of course some changes are to be expected in TV and films, and can sometimes be a positive thing, but with Holmes there is a very fine line between being creative and losing the character completely. I suspect that some film makers just see Holmes as a handy default detective type, without bothering to find out how unusual the original character really is. Instead they just throw a pipe and deerstalker at a character, and make sure he says “Elementary my dear Watson” at least once, as if misquoting the books is all it takes.
As much as I might grumble, it doesn’t actually matter if Holmes is young or old, smart or scruffy, romantically inclined or disinterested, drug addled or sober. What does matter however is his wit, his intelligence, his cold logic, his non conformity and his strangeness,… as without these he just isn’t Holmes. Of course, try as I might to keep an open mind, if I see a Holmes film where he is sticking his tongue in Mrs Hudson’s mouth or just acting in a way that I consider un-Holmsian I logically assume it will bear no relation to Holmes at all, and I have generally found this to be a fairly safe assumption.
So, you have probably gathered that I take exception to anyone “ruining” the Holmes character, and consider many versions to be an abomination for that reason. That probably makes me sound like a complete Holmes snob who hates change of any kind. In reality I don’t automatically hate anything different, hell I even liked Young Sherlock Holmes. I have just seen so many bad representations of Holmes that I can’t help expecting the worst.
So considering all this you can imagine how worried I felt when I heard Guy Ritchie was making a Holmes film, as I either haven’t enjoyed or felt inclined to watch many of his recent films. The fact that Robert Downy Junior was playing Holmes gave me a glimmer of hope, as I generally enjoy his performances, but overall I didn’t hold out a lot of hope that I would love this version.
Once I saw the trailers I was even more concerned. While the setting and scenery looked good, they managed to pick snippets that gave me cause for concern. Obviously a trailer can’t convey the whole movie, but a couple of unexplained fast-paced actions scenes and giggling at semi naked Holmes just screamed abomination to me. The trailer seemed to avoid showing much of the Holmes personality, which made it seem like more of a mindless action comedy than I had hoped for and less about the great characters.
So for the few months I have been dreading the film, but in the back of my mind was a lingering fear (or maybe hope) that I would be proved wrong. As more and more of my seemingly intelligent friends watched and enjoyed it, I felt compelled to find out for myself, so this weekend we swallowed our pride and sat down with semi-open minds to decide for ourselves.
I had already begun to suspect that we had got it wrong before the end of the opening credits, but after a few scenes I was sure of it. Yes they had changed Holmes and invented a new story, (loosely based on snippets from others). Yes, this version of Holmes is totally unlike Brett. Yes, they even made Holmes romantically involved… but somehow it still worked. While characters, lines and deductions were plucked from various books and changed to suit the story, the essence of those characters rang true, and I feel sure that the creators of this new version are fans of the books.
Most importantly of all I just can’t help liking this Holmes. He isn’t an exact copy of the character from the books, but he is still Holmes. He has plenty of exasperating strangeness, scorn for authority, deviousness, extreme intelligence and yet at the same time an ineptness and self destructive streak that forces those around him (most notably Watson) to try to take care of him. The deductive methods that Holmes uses in this film are reminiscent of the books, along with his insistence that data is essential and that cold logic is the only way to unravel a mystery.
Having read the books and watched the series as much as I have, I recognised countless lines of dialogue and story elements that have been taken directly from the books. I love the way they used so many references to the original stories, often using these elements in new and unusual ways, but still holding on to the basic truths of those facts and characters. Such as his love interest in the film, Irene Adler, who is based on a character who appeared in the Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia”.
Of course in the original story he wasn’t romantically involved with her, however she is the only woman who has ever outwitted Holmes and it’s clear that he has a great deal of admiration for “the woman”. They have changed the character a lot, and made her more of a professional criminal, but still use many aspects of the original character. Personally I don’t think it’s really necessary for Holmes to have a love interest (although I can see how it might be handy for dispelling any right wing discomfort at the close male friendship between Holmes and Watson). If he does have to have one though, Adler was the right choice.
The Watson character is also different, but still retains the essence of the man. Jude Law (who coincidentally played a stable hand in an episode of the Granada series), plays the long suffering Watson in this film. While he is more of an action Watson than previous versions, and certainly tried to stop Holmes from disrupting his life, he is still essentially the same decent chap, who puts himself at risk in order to help solve crimes and support his good friend. The set-up of is his engagement and his fiancée are different but still loosely based on the character and situation found in the original stories.
I am not going to say the film is flawless, I would probably have enjoyed seeing more of Holmes and Watson dynamic and could have lived without some scenes. The mystery could have been a bit more well mysterious, and they could have made it less obvious who the bad guys were. While many of the action scenes were brilliantly done, I can’t help thinking some of the fight sequences just went on a bit too long. As clever as the way he dealt with fights was, I think I might have prefered to watch him use his brains on clues and deduction. However, despite those minor niggles, I can’t deny that I really enjoyed watching it, and I have no doubt I will do so again.
Of course, Jeremy Brett is still my favourite on-screen Holmes of all time, but I am surprised to say Robert Downy Jr. is far from the worst. It’s definitely worth giving this Holmes a chance, but do yourselves a favour and check out the Granada series too. Most importantly, if you haven’t read the books for a while (or at all), take the time to rediscover and enjoy the original Holmes.