Sherlock Holmes

Movie Information

The Story: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson pit their skills against a criminal mastermind who has apparently risen from the grave. The Lowdown: One of the most enjoyable and beautifully crafted films of the year -- and built around an interpretation of Holmes and Watson that's more than a worthy addition to their cinematic predecessors.
Score:

Genre: Action/Mystery
Director: Guy Ritchie (RocknRolla)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan
Rated: PG-13

There’s more pure fun to be had in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes than in anything else currently playing. At least that’s true if you like Ritchie’s directorial style and aren’t outraged—outraged, I tell you—over the film’s take on the world’s first consulting detective. I know people who don’t care for the style, and I’ve seen one person in need of a refund when she found that Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were no longer involved.

Make no mistake, Sherlock Holmes is every inch a Guy Ritchie picture—only it’s a Guy Ritchie picture about Sherlock Holmes. And it’s a Sherlock Holmes picture that offers a slightly different Holmes. But then—despite some widely held perceptions and misperceptions—there’s really no such thing as an etched-in-stone movie Holmes. From Eille Norwood to Clive Brook to Arthur Wontner to Basil Rathbone to Peter Cushing and beyond, each actor has brought his own stamp to the role. Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was fairly cavalier about the character. When the world’s best-known stage Holmes, William Gillette, asked Doyle’s permission to have Holmes get married, Doyle told him, “I don’t care if you kill him.”

Most people’s traditional image of Holmes—Basil Rathbone in a deerstalker with Nigel Bruce as bumbling old Dr. Watson—is hardly the only one. And that Watson has little relation to the one in Doyle’s story. Moreover, when Rathbone and Bruce moved into modern times to fight the Nazis in 1942 with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Holmes starts to put on his deerstalker only to have Watson remind him, “Holmes, you promised,” whereupon Sherlock opts for a nice fedora—not unlike the one Downey affects in the new film. The more things change, the more Sherlock Holmes changes with them.

Downey’s Holmes isn’t so much a rethinking of the character as it’s a different look at him—and, for that matter, at his London. For such a heavily stylized film as Sherlock Holmes, it’s actually a more realistic look at Holmes and his era. This isn’t gauzy, fog-shrouded London, but grimy industrial revolution London. If we pause to think about Holmes in real terms, chances are good that his general work/problem-obsessed nature would extend to a lack of personal hygiene. As for the homoerotic subtext of his relationship with Dr. Watson, this isn’t even new (see Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), but it’s handled here with surprising charm and feeling.

The adventure for this new outing is shrewdly devised in that it works on a supernatural premise. It involves a decidedly depraved murderer and criminal mastermind, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, RocknRolla), who returns from the grave to plunge England into terror. The supernatural is always a good selling point in this kind of mystery. After all, there’s a reason why The Hound of the Baskervilles with its legendary hound from hell is the most filmed of all Holmes stories. Ritchie’s film is also nicely seasoned with bits of Holmesiana—including bringing in Holmes’ particular weakness, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), into the mix and a couple shadowy appearances of a certain professor (an obvious setup for a sequel). There are also smile-inducing details for the faithful, which I’ll leave to them to find for themselves.

If there’s a weak link in the film, it’s Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler. I’m not sure it’s entirely her fault, since she has the misfortune of trying to compete with the incredible chemistry between Downey and Law. In the scenes where Holmes and Watson aren’t together, there’s something lacking, and McAdams, whose utter Americanness seems a little out of place, doesn’t make up for it. But hey, you’ve got a fantastic Holmes and Watson, an icily menacing villain, the promise of adventures yet to come and endless directorial panache. I’d call that a cause for celebration—as is the simple fact that the game’s afoot once more. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

40 thoughts on “Sherlock Holmes

  1. I can’t believe how much fun this film is. I gave up on Ritchie after SWEPT AWAY and REVOLVER, but ROCKNROLLA and this film have made me love his work again.

    From the looks of the box office we’ll get a sequel.

  2. Ken Hanke

    From the looks of the box office we’ll get a sequel.

    I’m hoping Ritchie parlays a deal where he also gets to make The Real RocknRolla.

  3. Dread P. Roberts

    This might actually be my favorite movie of the year, as well as my favorite Guy Ritchie film. Of course, it probably helps that I spent a decent portion of my Saturday morning getting in a bit of a Sherlock mood, watching some of the old Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies on TCM, prior to watching this in the evening.

    I found Ritchie’s take on the Holmes mythos to be rather refreshing. Despite the obvious directorial stylization, it actually seems a little more restrained – as if the frenetic, energetic madness was still all there, but somehow felt completely controlled. I feel like Guy Ritchie deserves a lot of respect for how well he’s fine-tuned his creative ability.

  4. I’m hoping Ritchie parlays a deal where he also gets to make The Real RocknRolla.

    Well, the film was a huge smash in Britain a respectable hit here, so I am hopeful.

    If they can do a second SMOKING ACES, then this film should get bankrolled.

  5. Ken Hanke

    This might actually be my favorite movie of the year, as well as my favorite Guy Ritchie film.

    That far I won’t go. I still prefer several 2009 titles to it, which is not, by the way a slam in any way. At the moment, I’m still claiming Snatch as my favorite Ritchie film, but as much as I like it and Lock, Stock and RocknRolla, I will admit that this is a nice departure, because those are almost the same film three times.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Well, the film was a huge smash in Britain a respectable hit here, so I am hopeful.

    A respectable hit here? Where? Certainly not in thaters. Its gross in the US was about $6 million. That it went on to become one of the most pirated films of the year is another matter.

    If they can do a second SMOKING ACES, then this film should get bankrolled.

    That the first Smoking Aces was bankrolled was unfortunate enough.

  7. TigerShark

    >>Doyle told him, “I don’t care if you kill him.”

    And in the nitpicky department…. since this is a paraphrase rather than an accurate quote, it shouldn’t have quotes around it.

  8. Ryan

    5 stars, really? I only get worried about the whole no-fog London vibe. I like the industrial age emphasis, but fog is essential to Holmes-ness, please tell me there’s a little fog somewhere!!!! and do you think it’s really essential to see it in theaters? I’ve alteady been tapped out seeing Avatar twice in 3D, which I DID think deserved four and a half stars, five if a dozen god-awful lines were taken out.

  9. Ken Hanke

    And in the nitpicky department….

    Yes, that’s nitpicky. And actually, it would require rewording entirely, not merely the removal of quotation marks.

  10. Ken Hanke

    5 stars, really?

    Well, 5 stars for me doesn’t immediately mean that it’s worth 5 stars for you. Are we usually on the same page in these matters?

    Whether it’s essential to see it in the theater is another matter. There’s really no such thing as a movie that doesn’t benefit from being seen theatrically, so I’d say it would be better to see it in a theater. Essential? Again, for me, yes.

  11. A respectable hit here? Where? Certainly not in thaters. Its gross in the US was about $6 million. That it went on to become one of the most pirated films of the year is another matter.

    You’re right. I mistook the worldwide gross as the American take. I can tell you it’s been a huge hit on video however.

    I went with my neighbors and watched SHERLOCK HOLMES again. Still enjoyed it as much as I did the first time.

  12. >There’s really no such thing as a movie that doesn’t benefit from being seen theatrically

    Well now, I wouldn’t say that (though I tend to agree with the underlying principle). Even in recent reviews of yours, “Transylmania” doesn’t sound like something that benefited from a big screen in any way (and of course, stuff that really should have gone on TV or direct to video but the distributor wanted to experiment, as happens periodically, from live action trash to things like “Doug’s 1st Movie” and so on; I’m not entirely convinced about the “High School Musical” sequels somehow improving or benefiting from the leap either except in financial terms, but having sidestepped any and all manifestations thereof, I’ll willingly defer to first-hand judgement).

    Perhaps “There’s really no such thing as a halfway decent movie or film clearly intended for a theatrical showcase and not as an afterthought” (or a bad movie with good visuals) that doesn’t benefit etc. would be more accurate (also awkward and not as pithy, I admit, but this is one nit that I felt like picking, even in passing).

  13. Vince Lugo

    Saw this tonight and had a blast. It makes me want to try and read the original stories again (I tried in high school and couldn’t get into it). Fortunately, I recieved a handsome hardcover edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes for Christmas. I should thank my friend for his foresight.

  14. Ken Hanke

    I can tell you it’s been a huge hit on video however

    Which is great, but we’ve seen time and again that that doesn’t equate with what people will actually go see in a theater. I believe you do a pretty good business on Park Chan-wook movies, but Thirst died with barely a whimper on the big screen here. I didn’t think it was great (I don’t really get the love for Asian horror), but I did think it was good (if too long) and certainly deserved better than it got. I don’t understand the dichotomy between what people will rent and what they’ll go see in a theater, but it clearly exists.

    That said, I would love to see The Real RocknRolla. I think we can safely assume a Sherlock Holmes sequel.

    I went with my neighbors and watched SHERLOCK HOLMES again. Still enjoyed it as much as I did the first time.

    I haven’t had time to see the whole film a second time, but I have seen parts of it and it looks like it will hold up nicely on repeat viewings to me.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Perhaps “There’s really no such thing as a halfway decent movie or film clearly intended for a theatrical showcase and not as an afterthought” (or a bad movie with good visuals) that doesn’t benefit etc. would be more accurate (also awkward and not as pithy, I admit, but this is one nit that I felt like picking, even in passing).

    In the main, you’re right of course, though as you note, it’s awkward. I might go with “There’s no such thing as a movie worth watching that doesn’t benefit from being seen on the big screen.” (I’d leave out the made that way clause, because I’ve seen a lot of made for TV things that benefitted. I exempt sitcoms, which are less movies than simply radio with pictures.) The thing that most people seem to mean by the question is whether or not the film is sufficiently “epic” in nature to need size — and that’s short-sighted, and not just because a good many extremely visual films aren’t epics. Movies that are done in a style that sometimes appears a bit stagebound on a TV screen — even a large screen TV — can become an entirely different experience on the screen. When I saw the Tod Browning Dracula (1931) on the screen — after years of seeing it on TVs ranging from 12 to 27 inches — it was like seeing it for the first time.

  16. Vince Lugo

    I know what you mean. I felt the same way about Pulp Fiction after seeing it in my college’s theater-sized screening room during a film studies class. Speaking of that, one of the more interesting lessons was when we watched The General and the professor actually got someone to play the piano during the show like in the old days.

  17. TokyoTaos

    Ken, I actually thought Jude Law was rather bland in the movie and that any number of other actors could have given just as adequate a performance. I would have loved Watson to have been a more distinctive character – Holmes is naturally at the center of things but still Watson could have been much more Watsonish. I also think McAdams more than held her own and that there was actually more chemistry between her and Downey than Downey and Law. It’s always interesting how perceptions differ!

  18. I have to say I pretty much adored this. Every inch a Guy Ritchie movie while still capturing Holmes and Watson in all their glory. I’m stunned people are complaining of a lack of faithfullness – there’s even dialogue lifted directly from the original stories.
    Downey captures Holmes’ nervous energy and arrogance brilliantly and Law is pretty much the ideal Watson. I didn’t share your reservations about McAdams, and she’s probably my favourite portrayal of the Irene Adler character on screen.
    The part of the film that’s most sticking with me is the whole ‘Holmes-building-his-disguise’ sequence.
    Can’t wait for the sequel, with Moriarty obviously set up to be the villain. I nominate Tom Waits for the role.

  19. bikeman

    I have watched Snatch numerous times, and again, I enjoyed seeing the effective use of Guy Ritchie’s slow motion, and fast motion sequences, such as Holmes surveying the room for clues, drugging the wine bottle,etc,,.
    The pacing throughout the movie was consistent, the grimy look of London was a big plus, probably a more realistic portrayal. Agreed on the comment concerning Rachel McAdams.
    Overall, a great movie.

  20. Ken Hanke

    Holmes is naturally at the center of things but still Watson could have been much more Watsonish

    But what exactly does that mean? There are so many different interpretations of Watson, that I can’t decide on anything approaching definitive.

    It’s always interesting how perceptions differ!

    Invariably. I know someone who didn’t like the movie not because he found Law too bland, but because he found him too much in the same mould of smug as Downey.

  21. Ken Hanke

    Can’t wait for the sequel, with Moriarty obviously set up to be the villain. I nominate Tom Waits for the role.

    Interesting choice — and you might be even more inclined to it after you see Dr. Parnassus.

  22. Dread P. Roberts

    There are so many different interpretations of Watson, that I can’t decide on anything approaching definitive.

    I’m guessing that most people identify most with the Nigel Bruce interpretation of Watson; since that was the original, arguably most popular, and most mimicked version (I think the Watson in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective is basically an exact copy of Nigel Bruce.) With that said, I personally much prefer Jude Law’s take on Watson, despite the lack of nostalgic identification.

  23. TokyoTaos

    “Holmes is naturally at the center of things but still Watson could have been much more Watsonish.”

    “But what exactly does that mean? There are so many different interpretations of Watson, that I can’t decide on anything approaching definitive.”

    It’s not that I have a particular notion of Watson (I don’t have much knowledge of the source material), but that I wanted the Watson character to be more defined, more particular; I found Jude’s portrayal too bland and not coming across as a distinctive character.

  24. I’m guessing that most people identify most with the Nigel Bruce interpretation of Watson; since that was the original
    The original what? Not the original Watson of Doyle’s stories, nor was he the first screen Watson (in talkies or otherwise).

  25. Dread P. Roberts

    The original what? Not the original Watson of Doyle’s stories, nor was he the first screen Watson (in talkies or otherwise).

    Well then, I stand corrected and I apologize for my ignorance. I should have done a little research before making such claims off of what I thought to be an accurate presumption. I should note though that was merely referring to the first Watson to appear on movie screens; I was not referring to the books. Although that doesn’t really matter much, since I’m still wrong.

    The important point that I was attempting to make is that Nigel tends to represent the most iconic example of Watson. An image that tends to stick in peoples minds, much more so than what other actors have brought to the role. Perhaps it is this very perception that I have of the iconic nature of Nigel’s Watson that foolishly led me to believe that he was the first Watson to grace the silver screen. This may come across as an attempt to speak on behalf of all Sherlock fans, so I’ll clarify that I’m only speaking from my own personal experience.

  26. The important point that I was attempting to make is that Nigel tends to represent the most iconic example of Watson. An image that tends to stick in peoples minds, much more so than what other actors have brought to the role.
    That’s certainly true. It’s odd, almost every time a new Holmesian production has been mounted, the creators invariably talk about how they ‘didn’t want to present Watson as a dotty bumbler like in most previous productions’. Really, when you think about it, there hasn’t really been a production that’s presented Watson like that since Nigel Bruce. Nigel Stock, Andre Morrel, David Burke, Edward Hardwicke, Andrew Sachs, Robert Duvall, Michael Williams, Ian Hart, etc. have all presented Watson as capable, wise and quick-witted, and more or less in line with the character as conceived by Doyle. Colin Blakely was prone to bluster, but still far from a fool.

    It’s a real testament to how iconic Rathbone and Bruce have become that it’s still the stereotype that needs to be subverted. In fact I’ve seen many reviews of Ritchie’s film paint it as unfaithful to Doyle by pointing out differences to the Rathbone movies. Not that I don’t love a lot of those pictures, but they certainly share less in common with ACD than Ritchie’s film. Most of them are set in WWII and some even have Holmes battling the Nazis, for Christ’s sake.

    One of the odder affectations of most movie Holmeses is that they’re almost all too old. Rathbone was 53 when he started playing Holmes. The Holmes in the stories starts out in his early 20s and doesn’t age much beyond his mid thirties across the course of the stories, except two set during his retirement. I mean, Downey is about 10-15 years too old for the part, but who cares.

  27. Dread P. Roberts

    It’s a real testament to how iconic Rathbone and Bruce have become that it’s still the stereotype that needs to be subverted.

    The odd thing is that even though I tend to prefer the new (err, more in tune with the books) characterizations of Holmes and Watson, I love to go back and watch the Rathbone and Bruce movies. I can enjoy the various styles for different reasons, and I kind of feel bad for people who tend to believe that there can be only one way.

  28. can enjoy the various styles for different reasons, and I kind of feel bad for people who tend to believe that there can be only one way.
    Couldn’t agree more.

  29. TigerShark

    >>>Yes, that’s nitpicky. And actually, it would require rewording entirely, not merely the removal of quotation marks.

    Well, if you’re gonna be snippy, no it’s not really nitpicky. If you’re not going to quote someone exactly, don’t put quotes around your paraphrase.

    As for the movie…it was a good movie with a guy who called himself Sherlock Holmes and Watson, but it wasn’t really a Holmes and Watson movie. Too bad they couldn’t call it a Sherrinford and Watson movie or something.

    And Irene Adler was just fine.

  30. Will

    There’s really no such thing as a movie that doesn’t benefit from being seen theatrically

    I would agree that this applies to most movies, but I would not like to see something like Memento or The Usual Suspects for the first time in a theater. For movies with particularly confusing/complicated plots, I enjoy being able to re-watch pieces as I go along, to catch details I missed and try to put the story together in my head. For some that may destroy the pacing, but I enjoy where a movie is going more with additional time to understand what I’ve already seen.

  31. Ken Hanke

    For some that may destroy the pacing

    Yes, that would be exactly my argument against it. I’d far rather just watch the whole film a second time.

  32. Yes, I’d be curious to hear that, too.
    I’m starting to get a little irritated with this attitude among Holmes purists – the argument seems to be a) He doesn’t shave often enough and b) He hits people.

    The second is at least implied in the stories and as for the first: we’ve had Holmes twenty years too old battling the Nazis (Rathbone), fat Holmes (later Brett), bald Holmes (Arthur Wontner, with his painted on hair), teenage Holmes (Young Sherlock Holmes), sex-god Holmes (Case of Evil) and many other more severe deviations from the canon. I don’t see why people are getting so upset about a bit of stubble and some fisticuffs.

  33. Dread P. Roberts

    …teenage Holmes (Young Sherlock Holmes)

    The most under-appreciated Holmes movie that I can think of right now, if only because it involves killer cream cakes. Really people, why do you snub a movie with animated killer cream cakes?

    I don’t see why people are getting so upset about a bit of stubble and some fisticuffs.

    One of my favorite little touches was during the moments when Holmes is thinking out his next course of action, which is illustrated in a slow motion narration, prior to the actual fighting sequence being carried out. It just felt to me like such a perfect way to do a Sherlock fighting scene.

  34. luluthebeast

    Maybe a little late, but I finally got to see it and pretty much agree with you, Ken.The “incredible chemistry between Downey and Law” was the high point of the movie for me and I would have rather seen someone like Peta Wilson in the Adler role, I think she would have given it a bit more strength. I get a little tired of listening to some of the “purists” knock it. For one thing, it is a Guy Ritchie film, and he does have a certain style. For another thing, if people would remember from the actual stories, Holmes was an accomplished boxer and familiar with a certain form of martial arts. He also had certain “traits” that today might class him as a manic depressive, which would explain some of Downey’s characterizations. Loved the scenes of the Thames and the movie in general.

  35. Steve

    OK, you guys are convincing me. After seeing the promos, I figured this was yet another classic beefed up and turned into a monster truck rally (think Lord of the Rings). I am a huge Rathbone fan, but I know that at the time those movies were released many Doyle fans were upset about Watson being turned into a boob/comic relief character. I guess what I can’t get past are like the fight scenes. I just can’t see Holmes lowering himself to fisticuffs that border on the slapstick. Not a Stooges fan here, and couldn’t bear to see that done to Holmes. But if you guys say it’s this good, well maybe…

    If nothing else I know you’re pretty stingy with the 5-star rating. I’m curious to see what rates it in this film.

  36. Steve

    No implied offense or slap at the Stooges, I’m just not a fan. Some of the promos looked pretty slapstick. I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around this kind of Holmes. But if the movie is as good as it appears, I shouldn’t have a problem suspending my disbelief.

  37. Some of the promos looked pretty slapstick.
    If you’re referring to the wobbly big-armed punches in the trailer, do not fear. I was worried about those too, and it all works fine in the actual picture.

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