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Thursday, Feb 3, 2011
The critical reception of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes owes more to Basil Rathbone than Robert Downey Jr.

I have never quite understood the purists who insist on Holmesian externals as the be-all and end-all, that Victorian London be picturesque, cozy and uncomplicated largely because Holmes stands like a bulwark against evil: all-knowing, all-wise, calm and collected.


Well, no. The canonical Holmes is one of the most spectacularly unstable characters in all literature, a bundle of manic energies who depends on cocaine to keep up with them—that is, when he’s not digging through the dark side of human nature, propelled by the most grotesque crimes he can ferret out. He’s arrogant, impatient, sardonic, sloppy, rude to his closest friends and the despair of his poor landlady.


In short, how exactly do you complain when he’s being played by Robert Downey Jr.? Even the normally hyper-perceptive Roger Ebert falls into this trap—objecting because he sees Holmes as always ‘immaculate’. Uh-huh. I think Ebert has seen one too many Basil Rathbone movies.
  
Yes, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes falls down a bit as an action-adventure. The ‘fierce reason against the baroque dark arts’ shtick is the laziest possible way to plot a Holmes movie, as evidenced by the fact it’s almost a direct ripoff—right down to the elaborately intrusive CGI—of Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes. Which… well, produced by Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus. In 1985. This is not the kind of source material you’d expect Mr. RocknRolla to be cribbing.


On the other hand, you’d also not expect him to have quite such an affinity for the internal Holmes. In a movie laden with state-of-the-art flourishes, the most obvious evidence of skill is the decision to focus inwardly, to give Downey’s incredibly charismatic performance free reign. Where Jeremy Brett’s interpretation made a fetish of holding himself together in order to fend off vulnerability, Downey’s revels in eccentricity as a law unto itself; intellectual brilliance barely held in check by the needs of the body, let alone of civilised interaction. He hangs onto Watson not because he needs a foil but because he needs a link to reality, practicality—and he knows he’s not liable to find another such tolerant sidekick anytime soon.


Jude Law’s Watson, meanwhile, earns my undying appreciation by reacting to all this the way any sane, normal man would, which is to say exasperated by his very admiration. He does not make the mistake either of disdaining or of devoting himself to what he does not understand. Again, inexplicably bewildered critics: the canonical Watson is a handsome, athletic, intelligent, reasonably perceptive man, who gets involved with Holmes’ adventures to begin with because he’s bored out of his mind with civilian life. Bingo.


To my mind, it’s the most intimate portrait we’re ever liable to get of either man. This is a movie that assumes you’re watching it because you appreciate Holmes, not some phantom vision of Anglophile nostalgia. To that end, it refuses to insist on itself, which is a big part of what I think the critics are missing. There are no ‘OK, Watson, let’s pause to demonstrate my brilliance by using you as the dopey audience stand-in’ moments here. As a real bonus, neither is there the need—beloved of more recent revisionists—to break Holmes down completely into his component neuroses.


The movie simply beats in tune with Holmes’ mind: fitful, fretful, never quite what it seems but always completely confident in its own superiority. Which is, after all, what propelled Doyle’ otherwise goofily melodramatic pulp-magazine stories to legend in the first place, while the Raffleses and Bulldog Drummonds fell by the wayside.


Yes, some of the obligatory references are awkward, notably Rachel McAdams as a not-too-convincingly capable Irene Adler; then again some, like the re-instatement of the ‘bull pup’ (not to say the ‘patriotic V.R. done in bullet-pocks on the sitting-room wall’) are clever and lovingly subtle—signs we’re in the sure hands of a Baker Street Irregular in good standing. So sure, that the proposed bunging of Moriarty into the inevitable sequel actually doesn’t fill me with apprehension… much.

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