by HELEN GEIB
When a literary property has been a cultural phenomenon for so long that its lifespan is measured in decades instead of years, a new work isn’t another adaptation, it’s the newest entry in the [fill in descriptor] universe. Director Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is the newest entry in the Holmesian universe, featuring the latest in a long line of interpretations of Holmes (by Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Watson (by Jude Law).
Writing about the film gives me a feeling of deja vu; it’s because I wrote about Star Trek in this space not that long ago. The films may not have much in common on the face of it, but they do share the pros and cons of joining an established universe of enduring popularity. The pros of instant name recognition and a dedicated fan base, and the con of having to satisfy the dedicated fans, the people who couldn’t care less, and the vast middle. The task is further complicated by the fact that while practically everyone knows something of the universe, they had many different entry points. Audience expectations of Sherlock Holmes are informed by the original stories, the multiplicity of movie series and TV series adaptations, parodies, riffs, homages, spin-off book series by contemporary novelists, and who knows what else.
Writing about Sherlock Holmes also carries a feeling of familiarity because of its strong resemblance to an origins story superhero movie. Holmes’ cognitive exceptionalism has its super-human aspect, and while the movie isn’t an origins story per se (Holmes is well-established at 221B Baker Street, looked after by the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson and oft-called upon by Inspector Lestrade), it has its origins story aspect as well. Holmes and Watson are in a transition period in their relationship, spurred by Watson’s engagement to Mary and pending move to his own establishment. Moreover, although Moriarty is not the principal antagonist of the film’s story, he does make his bow as the criminal mastermind par excellence, pulling strings in the shadows cast by Mark Strong’s flamboyant villain of the week.
I really enjoyed Sherlock Holmes. The part I enjoyed the most was the film’s take on Holmes and Watson and the performances by Downey and Law that are so important to it. The part of the characterization I enjoyed most was the sense that their relationship was a genuine friendship, and a friendship of equals. No genius expounding to his dogsbody/worshipper in this variant.
As someone from the vast middle with only a vague memory of stories I read once years ago, I don’t know if that cast to the Holmes/Watson pairing is true to Doyle’s writing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I don’t care – the problem of whatever-to-screen adaptation always interests me. However, I would say that it is ultimately irrelevant. The basic question is: does the movie satisfy standing on its own? It is fast-paced and exciting, without turning desperate, and displaying an entertaining visual flair. Holmes has many opportunities to show off his famed deductive powers, some of them pleasingly unconventional. The plot’s (both criminal and in story-terms) mix of spiritualism and science is true to the period, and a nice reflection of the mix of spiritualism and science in the life of the true believer in spirit mediums who wrote stories celebrating the powers of the rational mind. The period re-creation in costumes and art design is splendid and meticulous.
The movie is available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray release, which is packaged with a DVD version and a digital copy, is the one to get if you want special features, such as: “Director Guy Ritchie delves into the world of Sherlock Holmes while you watch the movie!” (is this a new way of saying there’s a director’s commentary?); storyboard comparisons; stills gallery; and a short feature called “Sherlock Holmes: Reinvented,” which also comes with the bare-bones DVD release.
Other new releases this week: Afghan Star, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, An Education