The less I thought about Sherlock Holmes, the more I liked "Sherlock Holmes." Yet another classic hero has been fed into the f/x mill, emerging as a modern superman. Guy Ritchie's film is filled with sensational sights, over-the-top characters and a desperate struggle atop Tower Bridge, which is still under construction. It's likely to be enjoyed by today's action fans. But block bookings are not likely from the Baker Street Irregulars.
One of the comforts of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories is their almost staid adherence to form. Villains and cases come and go up the staircase at 221B Baker Street, but within that refuge, life stays the same: Holmes all-knowing and calm, Watson fretful and frightened, clues orderly, victims distraught, never a problem not seemingly insoluble. Outside is the fabled Victorian London, a city we all know in our imaginations. I think I became an Anglophile on those winter nights when I sat curled up in my dad's big chair, a single lamp creating shadows in the corners of the room, reading the Modern Library edition of the stories while in the basement I heard the comforting sounds of my parents doing the laundry.
Every Holmes story is different and each one is the same, just as every day has its own saint but the Mass is eternal. "Sherlock Holmes" enacts the strange new rites of hyperkinetic action and impossible CGI, and Holmes and Watson do their best to upgrade themselves. Holmes tosses aside the deerstalker hat and meerschaum calabash, and Watson has decided for once and all to abandon the intimacy of 221B for the hazards of married life. Both of them now seem more than a little gay; it's no longer a case of "oh, the British all talk like that." Jude Law even seemed to be wearing lipstick when he promoted the movie on Letterman.
Well, Holmes, like Hamlet, has survived countless interpretations. The character has been played memorably by Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Frank Langella, Peter Cushing, John Barrymore, James D'Arcy, Michael Caine, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Rupert Everett, William Gillette, Stewart Granger, Charlton Heston, Anthony Higgins, Raymond Massey, Roger Moore, John Neville, Leonard Nimoy, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Nicol Williamson -- and now Robert Downey Jr., who is not the least of these.
Downey's Holmes is at once more dissolute and more fit than previous incarnations. Holmes' canonical devotion to cocaine is here augmented by other drugs and a great deal of booze. Yet Holmes has the body of a lithe athlete, the skills of a gymnast and the pugilism of a world champion. He and Watson (who is, you recall, only a doctor, although one with clients who must be puzzled about his office hours) spring readily into action like Batman and Robin.
In a really very good opening sequence, the two burst in upon the fiendish satanist Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) in the act of committing a dastardly act. Blackwood is sent to the gallows and sealed in his tomb, only to reappear (to Holmes' undeniable satisfaction) seemingly still alive. This sets off a series of action set pieces in the streets of London, which have never seemed more looming, dark and ominous; I had the impression Jack the Ripper had just darted out of view.
After the initial apprehension of Blackwood, Holmes retreats to his digs. In Conan Doyle, this is often explained as "a period of study" and implied drug reveries. In Ritchie's version, he trashes his rooms like a drunken undergraduate; they lack only empty pizza boxes. This will not do. My Sherlock is above all fastidious. But never mind. Blackwood's resurrection gives him a new reason for living.
There is also interest from two women: Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), of course, said to be the only woman to ever touch Holmes' heart, and Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), Watson's intended, who may be in for more than she knows. The advent of Mary on the scene sends Holmes into fits of petulance; how dare the doctor prefer a woman to his own fascinating company? Watson has always maintained quarters elsewhere, but in this film, the cozy confines of 221B make his other rooms seem more than ever like a beard.
The Conan Doyle stories are still read, and probably always will be. Most readers get to at least a few. But among moviegoers on Christmas night (traditionally one of the busiest movie nights of the year), probably not so many. They will be unaware that this "Sherlock Holmes" is cheerfully revisionist. They will be entertained, and so was I. The great detective, who has survived so much, can certainly shrug off a few special effects.
A crippled veteran, returning to London from Afghanistan and forced to live on a small pension, finds a flatmate who turns out to be a drug addict. They become close friends and this other man eventually tells the ex-soldier that Britain is heading for disaster but will emerge "a cleaner, better, stronger land" and suggests they rush to the bank to cash a cheque before its signatory reneges. The subject of this highly topical story is, as you've probably guessed, Dr John H Watson, narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He's well played by Jude Law in Guy Ritchie's second Holmes movie as a sensible, intelligent, reliable chap, even if he too readily explodes or expostulates when confronted by his flatmate's outrageous behaviour.
But while the film's art director and costume designer give us an attractive version of late Victorian society, Robert Downey Jr's Holmes is from the end of the next century. His stubble is not even of the designer kind, his dress what passes now as "smart casual". The introspective, contemplative, ratiocinative, philosophic aspect of Holmes gets obscured as Ritchie turns him into a 21st-century man of action in the mould of Indiana Jones and Daniel Craig's ultra-tough James Bond. We know that Holmes practised the martial art known as baritsu, but Downey has the fighting skills of an SAS trooper, the agility of a trapeze artist, the stamina of a long-distance runner and the physique of a man with a personal trainer. Like Bond, he endures pain and torture as he's beaten by thugs, injected by deadly poisons and suspended by a meat hook stuck into his chest.
The background mood is right, a complacent, seemingly optimistic 1890s bustling with energy, but with something dangerous rumbling underneath that is more than the tube station being built near 221B Baker Street. A vast conspiracy is being launched by the great mathematician Professor Moriarty, but only Holmes can do the maths necessary to realise that all the bombings and assassinations around Europe are part of the Napoleon of crime's plan to foment war between France and Germany. The aim apparently is to make the professor rich through his recently established control of armament factories that will eventually fulfil his megalomaniac ambitions. But while the intrigue is persuasive and related to many of the concerns of fin-de-siècle politics and the melodramatic literature of the period, the nonstop action is very much of our current cinema. The movie begins with a vast explosion in Strasbourg followed by similar pyrotechnics in London, Paris and Germany, which punctuate endless chases, fights on trains and battles that result in a body count that anticipates the world war Holmes seeks to avert.
The frenzy is actually increased by the device of sudden flashbacks using high-speed editing to explain how the great detective-chessmaster had anticipated, then executed, a succession of clever moves that resulted in the violent triumph we've just witnessed. There is not, however, too much time in this high-octane narrative for the development of character. Naturally, the women don't get their due. Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the love of Holmes's life, appears fleetingly. In a major comic coup that makes the audience draw its breath and laugh heartlessly, Holmes throws Watson's wife from a train as it crosses a viaduct at night. Noomi Rapace, the striking heroine from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, stalks mysteriously through the picture as a fortune teller as if she'd been told to think she's appearing in the gypsy encampment sequence in From Russia With Love. The three Ms – Moriarty, Moran and Mycroft – come out rather better.
The screenwriters, Michele and Kieran Mulroney, have drawn on Conan Doyle's novel The Valley of Fear for Moriarty's character and background, and on the story "The Final Problem" for the film's climactic encounter between Moriarty and Holmes at an anachronistically named "summit conference" beside the Reichenbach Falls. And Jared Harris plays him as a ratty or foxy type, rather different from the gaunt senior undertaker depicted by Sidney Paget in The Strand Magazine. The ex-army marksman turned assassin Colonel Sebastian Moran is a forceful presence as played by Paul Anderson. Stephen Fry has the right portly build and detached manner for Holmes's older brother, the establishment fixer Mycroft (a part in which Christopher Lee was wholly miscast in Billy Wilder's Holmes movie). He is, however, embarrassing when conducting a breakfast-time conversation with Watson's wife while naked, and he introduces an unnecessarily camp element by addressing Holmes as "Sherly", presumably a reference to the famous "and stop calling me Shirley" joke in Airplane!. Hans Zimmer's melodramatic score incorporates arias from Mozart's Don Giovanni and a jaunty Morricone theme from Two Mules for Sister Sara.
Watching this movie, I was constantly thinking of my friend and colleague, the brilliant wit, critic, novelist, translator and pasticheur Gilbert Adair, who died 10 days ago. Especially his postmodern trilogy of parodic detective stories which conclude at a Sherlock Holmes conference in Meiringen, where Adair himself plunges into the Reichenbach Falls with his own central character. Adair calls non-canonical Watson narratives "Schlock Holmes", but the final book in his series, And Then There Was No One, contains the best Holmes pastiche ever written, a 30-page re-creation of The Giant Rat of Sumatra, a tale referred to by Watson in "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" and called "a story for which the world is not yet prepared". I must declare a slight personal interest here, as there's a pretentious movie critic in the book called Philippe Françaix.