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.