Sunday, December 27, 2009

We just got back from seeing the new Sherlock Holmes movie, aptly titled Sherlock Holmes.

Overall it was an enjoyable movie, with some weak parts. Given the weakness of the other modern film versions of Sherlock Holmes (the Chris Columbus penned Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985 and the middling funny Without A Clue in 1988)

The look of the film is a highlight. The backgrounds and street scenes are reportedly all digital effects, but don't feel like it at all - it feels like an immersive Victorian world.

Some of the reviews have disparaged the more action oriented Holmes interpretation, but I think it is a valid one. The stories do talk about Holmes skills in Baritsu (an English martial art) and boxing and he actually gets in a few fights and scuffles in the canonical stories. Other reviews have faulted this version as not being "fastidious" enough, but that is also straight out of the stories. Holmes, as written, is extremely sloppy and disorganized outside of his professional areas, experiments with chemicals in his apartments and the scene where he shoots V.R. (for Victoria Regina) into one wall of the apartment is straight from Conan Doyle.

Where the Holmes portrayal does show real weakness is its fundamentally modern nature. Holmes, Watson and the other characters are sarcastic, ironic, egalitarian and overly expressive in contrast to how a true Victorian would have acted. This is especially telling because Holmes' lack of decorum is meant to be more meaningful in contrast to people who behave in a much more reserved fashion.

Which may have contributed to another problem, Robert Downey Jr's performance. Downey is over the top in Holmes lack of social skills, and his main approach to act out eccentricity seems to be twitching in various ways. This may also be due to him trying to distinguish his performance from his other current major role, the much cooler and sartorial Tony Stark.

The story adds up as well or better than most mainstream Hollywood stories, but does feature one really odd choice - the black magic ritual that Holmes interrupts at the start of the movie. Given how prominently a similar ritual was featured in the earlier Young Sherlock Holmes, this feels very derivative. After that, the following mysteries are better and the interplay between Holmes and Watson as Watson plans to move out pre-marriage works fairly well.

The introduction of Irene Adler as Holmes romantic weakness/arch rival works OK, once you've adapted to the modern perfomances. The treatment of the female characters (Irene Adler and Mary Morstan) is also very modern - they are independent, opinionated women and treated with respect from those around them, definitely not what would have happened if played with a period flavour. And once again, the general treatment undermines a specific character. Irene Adler is meant to be shockingly independent and aggressive, but how shocking is it when all the women are similar? It takes away from the uniqueness of the character.

But it is easier to point out in length the weaknesses, the strengths are on the screen, and it is an enjoyable film if you can get past the modernized Holmes and friends.

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