Holmes Guy Ritchie, director. Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, script. Starring: Robert Downey, Jr. (Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law (Dr. John Watson), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler), Mark Strong (Lord Blackwood), Kelly Reilly (Mary Morstan), Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade)
Reviving a beloved character is always a difficult task. Do you treat the figure lovingly and risk the charge of being too conservative and reverential? Or do you offer a radical new take on an old favourite, possibly offending the existing coterie of fans? Or stay somewhere in the middle and likely satisfy no one?
That’s the dilemma, which faced Guy Ritchie when offered the opportunity to offer the 21st century a new version of Sherlock Holmes. The former Mr. Madonna is on the comeback trail since their breakup and he’s intent on reviving a film directing career that started so promisingly with the cheeky, crude British noir caper film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Taking on the acclaimed detective Sherlock Holmes must have appealed to his vanity. If pulled off properly, Ritchie would be back on top of the game, his reputation as a great genre director restored.
Naturally, Ritchie is not a man renowned for reverence, apart from a brief flirtation with the Kaballah during his time with Madonna. Neither are Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, who offer insouciant interpretations of the famous Conan Doyle duo of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Eschewing ratiocination for fisticuffs (hey—at least I can use Victorian phrases!), this Holmes is a spry eccentric, who prefers bare knuckles fighting to the pleasures of the violin. The old fusty Watson is gone, too, replaced by a new robust medical man, who is a bit of a gambler and a womanizer. But now that he’s he met Mary, his betrothed whom Holmes loathes, Watson is trying to sort himself out.
The old relationship between Holmes and Watson based on the detective’s marked superiority as a thinker balanced out by the good doctor’s plain bulldog good sense has been replaced by two matching odd balls, whose bachelor days are being threatened by a woman. If there are homoerotic undertones in the new Holmes-Watson duo, they’re barely perceptible. Instead there’s awkwardness, banter and precious little of the bonhomie that characterized the Holmes and Watson of past incarnations. Downey and Law will never replace Rathbone’s imperious, chilly but fascinating Holmes and Nigel Bruce’s homely but loveable fuddy duddy of a Watson based on these performances.
Then there’s the plot. With dozens of great Conan Doyle stories to base your film upon, why invent a new one? Ritchie and company decided to do it, anyway. Not too surprisingly, it lacks Doyle’s unique imagination and offers precious few opportunities to display Holmes’ vaunted intellectual prowess.
Instead of a new Hound of the Baskervilles, we get a tale about a Satanic cult in old Victorian London led by sinister Lord Blackwood, a cardboard character whose dialogue echoes the purple prose written by Doyle’s less successful competitors. Holmes and Watson have to beat Blackwood, who even comes back from the dead—apparently—in an attempt to bring back good old-fashioned aristocratic rule along with devil worship.
Happily, Ritchie did cast Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, the sole femme fatale to wreak seductive magic on Holmes in the Doyle stories. She’s funny and attractive in her scenes, which regrettably are few and far between. Still, there is a genuine attraction between Downey’s Holmes and her that is the most charming element of the film.
Sherlock Holmes should have been great fun. Some irreverence towards the characters of Holmes and Watson was certainly in order—and Downey has his moments as the great detective. But this film will hardly reestablish the Holmes franchise or Ritchie’s career.