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WATSON, THE GAME'S AFOOT!

Reel Time
Dale Hill
www.flickwitch.com

            I don't think there are any purists left, except maybe a few superannuated members of the Baker Street Irregulars, who might complain when the movies muck about with Sherlock Holmes. After all, Holmes has been portrayed on screen more times than any other fictional character, and in ways that Doyle wouldn't recognize. In some of the Basil Rathbone movies, for example, this late-Victorian character ends up outwitting Nazis during World War II. 

            Holmes has also been the subject of countless literary pastiches, including Laurie R. King's popular series of novels in which the retired bee-keeper Holmes meets the brilliant young Mary Russell and ends up marrying her. This of course goes far beyond Conan Doyle's ambit, since in the canon Irene Adler is the only woman for whom the ice-cold detective ever shows a flicker of interest. (She is also, naturally, the only woman who ever outsmarts him.)

            It's therefore appropriate that Irene Adler is a major player in the new Sherlock Holmes movie that opened on Christmas Day. But you'd think that at least the lady herself would know how to pronounce her own name.

            Director Guy Ritchie, working from a story by Lionel Wigram, has done a stylish job of cobbling together a phantasmagoria that contains enough recognizable Holmesian elements to keep Conan Doyle fans placated, while giving non-Sherlockians a jolly run full of supernatural thrills and snappy dialogue. All of this is set in a dark and threatening late-Victorian London with a foggy, gloomy palette that oozes shadowy menace.

            Do you remember the 1985 movie called “Young Sherlock Holmes?” It was a fun piece of fluff about Holmes and Watson meeting at boarding school as teen-agers. Among other things, it contained the first fully computer-generated figure – an animated stained glass knight-in-armor that was great deadly fun. The movie's only problem came in the last twenty minutes, when it tried to turn itself into Raiders of the Lost Temple of Doom.

            Ritchie dares us to complain by hitting us with a Temple of Doom hubbub in the opening sequence: the horrendous Lord Blackwood is about to sacrifice his sixth innocent virgin in a crypt below St. Paul's Cathedral because, you know, you can't rule the world without the blood of innocent virgins. Holmes and Watson, with a little help from Inspector Lestrade and Scotland Yard, foil the attempted atrocity, and Blackwood is condemned to hang.

            How Blackwood escapes the gallows and continues to terrorize a London that's just recovering from Jack the Ripper is the problem set for Holmes and Watson, played with a good deal of verve by Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. These boys attack their roles with wit and good humor (not always the same thing) and show us a pair of  bachelor room-mates who bicker like an old married couple.

            But why should we, and Watson, see Holmes as a slob, when we know that he's a fastidious dresser who has clean laundry delivered to him in the caves on Dartmoor? Just asking.

            What this movie does, in lieu of praising Holmes's ratiocination, is to highlight his and Dr. Watson's physical accomplishments. We've heard from Conan Doyle that Holmes has won at least one prize-fight, and here we see him at it. Holmes praises Watson's army experience, and it's nice to see the old Doc treated  as an (almost) equal in hand-to-hand combat, rather than as Nigel Bruce's bumbling duffer.

            The climax moves with deceptive ease from the cellars below the Houses of Parliament to the top of the under-construction Tower Bridge in about a heartbeat, and nobody's breathing hard, which is pretty amazing, since it should take at least half an hour at a flat-out run to get from Westminster to the Tower. But that's how legends are made.

            As well as some necessary flashbacks, there are some amusing flash-forwards in which Holmes maps out what his next moves will be. The moves he puts on Irene Adler are decidedly inefficacious, because she is obviously a lot smarter than she is.

            The major problem here is Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler; as a friend said, she looks like a disco queen from the 1980s. She also spends the last half of the movie dressed as a man, and in the absence of any directorial clarification, I'm the last person to suggest that this is just the tiniest bit kinky.

            You'd also think the director would be familiar with her back-story: Adler is an operatic contralto (how else to attract the attentions of a Crown Prince in the days before YouTube?). McAdams has neither the weight nor the voice nor the presence to attract any Holmes who really has his mind on the problem. 

            As for the mystery itself, the placement of clues is haphazard and sloppy, violating many of the fair-play rules summarized by Julian Symons in The Detective Story in Britain:

 

         The criminal must be mentioned early on

         Supernatural solutions are ruled out

         Only one secret room or passage is allowed

         No undiscovered poisons are permitted

         No Chinamen should appear in the story

         The detective must not be helped by lucky accidents or intuitions

         The detective must not himself commit the crime

         Nor must he conceal clues from the reader

         The thoughts of the “Watson” must not be concealed

         There must be special warning of the use of twin brothers or doubles

 

            Then again, Conan Doyle doesn't scrupulously observe all of them all the time.

            For those of you to whom this is all too irreverent and inauthentic, there is always the Grenada television series, available on video, with the late Jeremy Brett as the World's Greatest Sleuth. I confess easily that Brett is my touchstone as Holmes, but if Downey and Law get to continue their series I'll be happy to watch it.