Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes Review (Spoiler Alert!)

Watching weekend Tweets during the opening days of Sherlock Holmes, I noticed mixed reactions. So now that I’ve seen Sherlock Holmes twice, I wanted to share my own, detailed thoughts on this great movie and some of its best—and worst—moments. (Full disclosure: the film’s Fight Coordinator is also one of my martial arts instructors.)

Maybe it’s because we’ve had some Wing Chun Kung Fu training and knew what to look for, but the first thing my husband and I agreed upon right away was that the fight scenes were a lot of fun. My husband especially loved the way the audience was let into Holmes’ head with the slow-motion “planning” of each strike. Although I could see other audience members squirming at the slow-motion, full-contact shots—and these were, indeed, filmed full-contact—the brawl in the ring was one of our favorites, a scene which, according to an inside source, wasn’t even in the original script. When Robert Downey, Jr. advocated for the inclusion of such a scene, Fight Coordinator, Eric Oram, suggested Holmes would surely take as methodical an approach to his fighting skills as he does to the other bodies of knowledge he pursues. He called the bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred match Holmes’ “fight lab”. His suggestion paid off.

The script itself was good. While movies with great ending twists, like The Usual Suspects, are fun to watch, I prefer a script that carries me along with just enough of a hint that I feel like I’ve started to figure some of it out myself—that, “I got it, I called it! Dude, I called it!” moment that makes the audience feel smart is worth its weight in ticket sales for the groundlings. Yet the movie left enough unexplained that Holmes still had the stereotypical “here’s how it was done” moments, enough to keep hard-core fans of the original author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from moaning in distress. (Keeping the fanboys and –girls happy seems to be Mr. Downey’s specialty, afterall.)

I thought the mysteries of the case fit Conan Doyle’s standard fare, the dialogue was true to what I’ve read of the books so far (well done all, going back to the stories for those geek-pleaser lines), and the details appeared to stick to the canon. The humor and timing were just right, though given Holmes’ strong sense of irony in Doyle’s original portrayal, I think the script could have taken even more without becoming a comedy. (Holmes, trying to convince Watson to help him pursue the case: “No girl wants to marry a doctor who can’t tell whether a man’s dead or not.”)

Granted, I’m no expert, but I happen to possess two amazing volumes of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, (“upon [which] I can thoroughly rely”) containing four novels and 56 short stories, and filled with copious notes, diagrams, illustrations, maps, photographs, etc., and deeply-detailed analysis by the leading experts of the Holmes canon at the time of its publication (1967). The forefront of Holmes research has surely advanced in the 43 years since then (and the book as been updated, of course), but the historic photographs alone, taken of real places mentioned in the stories that now no longer exist, are priceless. I’m curious to hear what the Baker Street Irregulars and their ilk thought of the movie. I imagine them picking the story apart with the most fine-toothed combs, assuming as they do that Holmes and Watson were real people rather than characters in a novel. Then again, as long as they buy movie tickets and aren’t beating any real corpses, who cares?

The casting was wonderful in all the places that mattered. Robert’s amazing range securely held Mr. Holmes in a snug embrace, though he was (uncharacteristically) humble when discussing his portrayal in interviews. His accent (a point on which he was not humble) was as spot-on as he had bragged about. (It’s always nice when an actor lives up to the hype he creates for himself.) The only time I couldn’t understand him was when he was in his Carl Malden-with-an-eye-patch disguise, but that seemed to be primarily the result of the drunken street accent he was imitating (to get it right or to be understood—that is the question).

In one of my favorite scenes, Holmes semi-intentionally insults Watson’s soon-to-be fiancĂ©; when she throws her glass of wine at him and Holmes is left to eat his dinner alone, he does not wipe the drink from his face. Rather, he calmly tucks his napkin into his shirt and cuts into his meat—his penance becomes the dinner’s emotional dressing. A classic Downey acting choice, that one simple omission delves into the deeper emotional conflict Holmes struggles with—he doesn’t want to lose his best friend to a marriage and is satisfied that he may have further driven a wedge between them, yet is self-recriminating enough to accept the hurt he’s caused Watson’s Mary (and, by extension, Watson) with a little self-flagellation.

Mr. Law was a perfect Watson, my reservations about his athleticism to the contrary. Though I never saw him as old, stupid, or bumbling, I initially believed he was more frail than he was portrayed in the film, due to his shoulder injury and bout with what may have been typhoid fever during the Afghan War. I’m still researching that one, but Jude Law himself
effectively makes the case that an 1890s military man like Watson would have seen “some hardship” that surely would have toughened him up (see minute 2:12, onward). Both men could act their way around just about anyone, given the opportunity and the right script. And their chemistry was so thick you could chew on it. I’d wager they’re set to become one of the best screen duos in a very long time. If there was any fault in the film, it certainly wasn’t Robert’s or Jude’s. I wondered whether Irene Adler’s American accent fit the actual sound of the time, but on that point I know very little, beyond listening to the oldest “talkies” and a general understanding of the ways in which the sounds of a language can shift over time. I know nothing whatsoever about Adler from the stories, having not gotten that far yet in my reading. Rachel McAdams manages to turn her little-known criminal character into a vivacious woman far ahead of the time and place in which she finds herself. I do wish Downey and McAdams had offered us a few more intimate scenes—when she ends up in handcuffs I’m afraid I don’t care too terribly.

The other supporting actors did a fantastic job, for the most part. Lestrade perfectly fit the man I imagined from the stories—he looked and sounded as if he had leaped off the page. (I assume his literary partner, Mr. Gregson, was removed from the script from the outset to tighten things up.) And the gigantic Dredger was played with more heart than most oversized baddies. My father was a career officer, so I have a special place in my heart for Constable Clark (“Clarky”)—my favorite supporting character. Perhaps make-up could have given him a wee bit more color, though. Make-up also needed to decide just how to portray a healing cut on Holmes’ mouth. I assumed at first that it was the result of the
hit he took during filming, but as I understand it now, the six-stitch injury he sustained was on the inside of his mouth. So the waxing and waning of his cut lip was an annoying distraction (continuity screw-ups tend to unsuspend my suspension of disbelief).

Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of Lord Blackwood is my biggest gripe. I had to agree with a friend of mine—he was not nearly menacing enough to fit the diabolical nature of the character. With little physical connection between him and those who assisted him in his intricate machinations, he seemed to float through frame after frame, looking anachronistic in his tight leather trench and half-slicked, half-shaved head. It was as if Guy Ritchie forgot which movie he was making. The rest of the period costuming was thoroughly Victorian—as it should be, given Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan (“A Room With a View”) was in charge—which makes Blackwood’s appearance clash even more. Given Beavan’s otherwise faithful dressing, I have to assume this was a directorial choice, one which I hope Mr. Ritchie will learn from before moving on to the sequel (which is already moving forward).

The arrangement of most of director of photography Philippe Rousselot’s shots showed his Oscar-winning talent (“A River Runs Through It”) and my favorite shot, hands-down, is one that begins tightly focused on a box that says “This Way Up”, then flips over into an overhead view of the chase scene between Dredger and Holmes.

The rest of my gripes were quibbly ones. For example, when Holmes and Watson jump out of the boat and head for the factory, they end up in water up to waist and chest, respectively—but once they’re in the factory, they appear perfectly dry. Adler and Watson pin the map onto the floor with heavy objects—twice. And how did Lestrade know where to find Holmes in that attic? Where was that attic, anyway? The same place where Holmes had been fighting in the ring? How Holmes knew about the glass knife held by Blackwood in the opening scenes was never explained. While it didn’t detract from the story, the fun of Holmes is hearing him show off what he knows and how he knows it. And the electrical device with which Holmes zaps Dredger frustrated the heck out of me—what the hell IS that thing?

And I hated the stupid crow that kept appearing at Blackwood’s crime scenes. Either Blackwood is a “magician” or he’s not. If he’s not, then leave the crow for an artistic statement in another film. In my opinion, the visual cue was distracting and sophomoric.

Finally, I noted a number of places where the trailers (both
the first and second) contained scenes that were cut from the movie: The white-clad female victim from the opening scenes of the movie appearing to “fall” upward. Lestrade reproving Holmes for his methods. Holmes struggling with a scantily-clad Adler as he admonishes her to “Be a lady.” Adler’s line, “They’ve been flirting like this for hours.” (Was that last referring to Watson and the boatman, or Watson and Holmes? Was it taken out after the ridiculous homophobic flap began?) Changing the movie after the trailer’s been released is of course nothing new in the industry, but I’ve always found it annoying. And it speaks volumes about how the editing of a film has played out. I wondered whether the scenes with Adler had contained more of the sexual tension that would have added a deeper dimension to the relationship between her and Holmes.

Overall, I loved the film—along with enough movie-goers to give the inventive Avatar a good run for its money. I’d love to hear your reactions.

Happy New Year to all!

Photo credit: Warner Brothers Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures