Elementary fun, but not really Holmes

I finally got around to watching the recent Sherlock Holmes blockbuster film (starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law) this weekend, in glorious high-def. I’d decided not to see it at the cinema when it came out, because – being a bit of a Sherlock Holmes fan – I thought that the inevitable liberties it was going to take with the character would have my blood boiling.

Fortunately this turned out not to be the case – I really enjoyed the film. It was great fun, boasting a mix of action, intelligent dialogue and spot-on playing by the cast (including Eddie Marsden as a great Lestrade and Mark Strong as a memorable villain). It looked great as well, although the backdrops were clearly too beautifully artistic to be anything other than CGI so I can’t exactly call it realistic. Most of all, it was just very funny, with plenty of touches to laugh at. Less successful were bringing in Irene Adler as the action heroine of the piece, and pitching Holmes against the dark arts of black magic – both ideas have been done to death over the years and are no longer big or clever; but in other areas there was impressive fidelity to the canon of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, even down to the very satisfying line-and-ink illustrations for the end credits to evoke the spirit of the original Strand drawings.

I’ve not been a fan of any of Guy Ritchie’s work before and couldn’t understand why he’d been selected for a film such as this – but it works. He brings the London criminal underworld to life in a rich and vivid way, and his directorial style (usually incredibly annoying) brought Holmes’ internal mental processes to life in an original and successful way. I even have nice things to say about the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer – a composer usually tiresomely repetitive as the Prince of Bombast, but who here puts together a lively, unique score that becomes almost another character in the film. And a word, too for Jude Law, whose Watson is a genuine triumph – a fully real person, intelligent and a proper foil for Holmes, never overshadowed for a minute. It’s possibly the best portrayal of the usually thankless role we’ve seen.

But after all the above praise, I come to something of a stuttering halt when thinking about the title character. I’m a big fan of Robert Downey Jr. – I couldn’t believe how much I loved Iron Man, simply because of the outrageous fun he has in the main role. This was no less an impressive piece of acting, and he’s done his homework (holmeswork?) studying Conan Doyle’s stories. Yet for me, this character was … Flat. Well, whatever it was, it just didn’t connect with me as any sort of Sherlock. That didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film – indeed, in many ways it released me to enjoy it as “A Blockbuster Action Film” rather than trying to reconcile it as a Sherlock Holmes story.

I’m really not that big a Holmes “purist”, either. Honest. A true Holmes purist will tell you that the best screen portrayals of the great detective are those of Jeremy Brett in the 1980s Granada TV versions, or possibly the Peter Cushing BBC versions from the 1960s. Both were great actors and huge Holmes aficionados who studied the stories to make their portrayals inch-perfect in accuracy, and supported by production teams determined to make the the end programme the definitive take of Holmes in its day.

No such objective for the Downey version (where the focus is on making a blockbuster action franchise that hopefully doesn’t alienate Holmes fans too much at the same time.) And for the most part, fidelity to the originals was also very far from the objective of the films starring my personal favourite Holmes of all time – those of the legendary Basil Rathbone.

The first Rathbone film was a very faithful adaptation of the best known Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. But the second was a pastiche of Holmes themes based on a stageplay, and after that the films switched studios from Fox to Universal who wanted to knock out three B-movies a year during World War 2 supporting the war effort, so Holmes was updated to the 20th century (no more Hansom cabs – over to automobiles and airplanes) and dispatched to confront German spies instead.

There’s plenty wrong with the Rathbone films – not least the fact that it was his Watson, played by Nigel Bruce, that started the trend for showing Watson as a bumbling no-hoper there for purely comedy relief. But at least Bruce’s portrayal this way meant that there was a purpose for the character – before this time, Watson was optional and all too often dropped from screen adaptations since films don’t need a “narrator” which was Watson’s primary and often only role in the original stories. Bruce’s comedy portrayal might have been wildly inaccurate to Conan Doyle’s stories, but it’s undeniable that after the Rathbone/Bruce pairing, it was no longer possible to to a Holmes film without Watson.

(Small piece of trivia: on screen, Bruce looked and played like a paternalistic old duffer, almost old enough to be Rathbone’s father. In fact, Rathbone was three years older than Bruce – try watching the films in future and reconciling that fact with their on screen personas.)

The films are by no means perfect, but they benefit hugely once producer/director Roy William Neill takes over and gives them a real sense of gothic style punching far above their B-movie weight. Neill is one of those Hollywood people who deserved a far, far bigger reputation, and it’s good to see the occasional book on Sherlock Holmes such as England’s Secret Weapon (well worth a read) spend many pages righting this oversight.

But there’s something fun and lively and energetic about these films. They rarely flag, whereas some of the worthy Brett adaptations of the 80s can, frankly, seem glacial by today’s standards. That’s partly down to the style of TV programmes in those days, but also due to the obsessively-reverential approach of the show. Sometimes taking a few liberties can do the world of good and breath new life into old source material, which is why I don’t begrudge the Downey film as I think its heart is in the right place.

The difference between the latest film and the Rathbone outings is the star. In the 40s Holmes B-movies, Rathbone powers the film – he dominates and captivates, despite delivering a very “straight” performance with few quirks and eccentricities. Downey doesn’t have anything like the same presence in the new film, which has so many other things going on that despite playing the quirks to the hilt Downey simply doesn’t come over as being all that interesting. He’s drowned out. Maybe that will be addressed in the inevitable sequel, but in this day and age of films that sorely need a dose of ritalin for advanced ADHD I rather doubt it. But that doesn’t mean I won’t look forward to it, if it’s as enjoyable as the first outing for Downey/Law – I just won’t think of it as a Sherlock Holmes film, no matetr what it says on the title card.

As a postscript: if I was to recommend a Holmes/Watson that manages the trick of being utterly faithful to the canon, while bringing the characters thoroughly to life and still pulling off an entertaining, fast-moving and often fun 45 minutes of entertainment, then I’d point you toward the BBC 90s radio versions starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams (the late husband of Judi Dench) as Watson, the only pairing ever to complete adaptations of all of Conan Doyle’s original stories. They are quite marvellously done, expanded just enough to allow a real warm relationship between the two leads and allow even continuing threads on such post-modern touches as the effect of the publication of Watson’s stories in Strand magazine on Holmes’ business. Where some adaptations have Holmes and Watson sniping at each other so much you wonder how they can stand to be in the same room, the Merrison/Williams productions put you in the company of two friends, and moreover people that you genuinely like to spend time with. You can catch these adaptations over on BBC Radio 7, and I heartily recommend them for both new fans and old purists alike.

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