Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Benedict Cumberbatch

Elementary, or, Guy Ritchie being Guy Ritchie

Sherlock Holmes (2009 film)

Sherlock Holmes (2009 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


There are certain characters that lend themselves to repeated adaptation, certainly once a character has passed a certain age they become part of the cultural landscape, and thus open to repeated re-examination and when the character in question becomes iconic things become even more difficult because, well, that’s when adaptations just have to get it right. Given how popular his adaptations have made him they really don’t come more iconic than the one we’re talking about today –Sherlock Holmes.

For anyone unaware (really? You guys are still reading this?) Sherlock Holmes is pretty much the iconic character of traditional British literature and culture. Phenomenally popular ever since the first appearance in 1887 Holmes has been immortalized in film and other mediums for generations, taking his place in the pantheon of great literary and filmic detectives. Strangely though it seemed that Holmes wasn’t going to make the jump to the big screen again after the hugely successful TV show where Holmes was superlatively played by the talented Jeremy Brett during the series run from 1984-1994. In fact, Brett was considered to be the finest Holmes since Basil Rathbone in the 1940s. I could wax lyrical about Jeremy Brett as Holmes, (one of only four actors to play both Holmes and Watson professionally) but it isn’t the classic Sherlock Holmes TV show we’re here to talk about.

We here to talk about Guy Ritchie.

Brace yourselves.

The reason I say that, is that Guy Ritchie is, in my opinion, not that great as a director. He’s…very much OK. Now, I know that criticising Ritchie may well be sacrilegious but before the mob assembles and ignites the torches, allow me to explain. He started his career in 1995 with the short 20 minute film, The Hard Case. Thanks to some contacts (Mathew Vaughn for example) Ritchie built a career on making essentially the same film over and over again. Lock Stock? It’s OK I suppose. Snatch? Very similar really. And then? Well, then he decided to marry Madonna, and it is here that much of the evidence for Ritchie being an unexceptional director comes from. Swept Away. Oh good god, Swept Away…And then he tried to salvage it with Revolver (for those who think this is one of Ritchie’s more coherent films I would point out that the Wikipedia summation of the plot is over a THOUSAND WORDS LONG.) He does his best but the plot of his films seems to constantly be of secondary importance to anything else meaning that audience interest has to be sustained by character, action and sheer charm. His track record suggests that he can only manage it sporadically.

Yes, he possesses a good aesthetic sense, and of course he knows how to stage an action scene (the very least you could expect from a gangster movie director) so when he was announced as the director in charge for 2009’s big budget film adaptation I was a little sceptical. And I’ll happily say upfront that all of my assumptions about Ritchie producing a poor quality film were completely wrong.  This is the wonderful thing about cinema – artists can constantly surprise you, and happily, Ritchie got it just so right.

Don’t get me wrong – this is still a film where Ritchie does what he does (big action, some whip crack dialogue and a plot with holes so big you could drive a cruise-liner through) but I can’t hate this film. Before explaining why, let’s deal with the big negatives around the film and get them out of the way. Firstly, the plot is pathetic and of all the film’s elements it is the least deserving of being in a Sherlock Holmes movie. It revolves around a mysterious cult featuring the enigmatic Lord Blackwood who has a fondness for grisly murders. Played ably by Mark Strong (the villain de jour is seemed a few years ago) once you strip away the weird occult window dressing the plot is really just an elaborate assassination plot that really isn’t all that difficult to figure out. Aside from this if you find Ritchie’s faux-Cockney irritating then you’ll probably put your foot through the TV screen.

I’m not doing a very good job at saying why this is good am I?

There is an awful lot to like here and as per usual with Guy Ritchie movies the good comes when the casting and the chemistry work. Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson click so well that not until Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman would another Holmes and Watson match them in terms of on screen chemistry. The two are clearing having the time of their lives, and really seem to enjoy acting against one another. Encouragingly this incarnation of Watson is actually the more faithful from some of the on screen adaptations. The script plays up Watson’s military background and his intelligence so he doesn’t just wander around scenes looking at Holmes admiringly and being generally a bit dim. If anything this film makes the two a much more equal pair – Watson the lawful good muscle and Holmes the chaotic brains. The film tweaks Holmes a little too, naturally. They play down the drug taking but keep the obsessive natures, the gadgets (amped up obviously) and the brief mention of Holmes’ boxing skill allows the opportunity for Holmes to get in a fight scene without a shirt.

What am I driving at here? What’s my overall, overarching point? It’s just fun – it’s a fun, unashamed popcorn munching blockbuster and if you accept it on those terms there is a lot of light hearted enjoyment to be had here. But is it a good adaptation?

Well, here’s where things (out of necessity) get a little more subjective because there are things here that may well annoy the more die-hard of Holmes fans. The subplot with Irene Adler proves the film will be joining the list of different versions that cannot get her right and the set up to the sequel is more obvious than the one at the end of Batman Begins….BUT!


All of these changes? All of these tweaks are not that “BAD” per se, because all of them can, (and have) been supported by the text. Characters like Holmes and Watson just can’t be static cut-outs once they have been around for as long as these two have. Culture evolves and so to pick holes in a fun piece of film making would be trying to stop culture evolving and shifting its representations. You just can’t do that, so you have to take the good and the bad together on it’s own terms and with that piece of perspective, go away, get some popcorn and just enjoy it.







Even if Guy Ritchie screwed it up with the sequel.




Promising not to split hairs, or ‘Benedict Cumberbatch – world’s creepiest baby sitter.’


After last week’s post I was challenged by two people on roughly the same point; that a film based on a book has to be considered an adaptation – both made the point in a different way and both very eloquently too  -(you can check them, and me out on Twitter *SHAMELESS PLUG*.) The point they both raised was, I hope, well taken and I edited the article to admit that I was splitting more hairs than someone with trichotillomania in a hair salon.

However, I think that this week’s article will help me explain my point about the artistic problem of making an incredible literary/film adaptation. Step forward Ian McEwan. Put simply I believe he is one of the best writers currently living and working in the United Kingdon, nominated for the Man Booker Prize a frankly stunning, six times. He’s a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Royal Society of Arts and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He’s been awarded the Shakespeare Prize, appointed as the first visiting scholar and writer at Dickinson College, given a CBE and if that were not enough, The Times named him as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. In short, this man has got some serious game.

So, if this is one of the UK’s finest writers who isn’t dead then it must be quite the ballsy step for a director to try to take on McEwan’s complex and inter-textual work – so who would step up? One of the heavy hitter’s of Western cinema? Well, how about a school drop out who left education with no GCSE’s? Step forward a certain young director – Joe Wright.

Joe Wright released his version of McEwan’s eighth novel in 2007 as his second feature film, Atonement starring Wrights near-ever present muse of Keira Knightly as well as the exceptionaly talented Saoirse Ronan. Almost immediately the critical reception was, bluntly, arse-kissingly good. Atonement and it’s newbie director set records as Wright became the youngest director ever to open that year’s Venice Film Festival at the tender age of just 35.

So, there’s the background. So, now, onto the critique…

And you know what? I think this might be one of the best adaptations I have ever seen. Seriously, it is just brilliant. From the opening credits the film demonstrates how to take a source material, (in this case the 2001 novel) and make into something uniquely filmic – not by trying to copy the methods of McEwan’s literary work but by using the film medium to do something the novel could not do. The way the title is brought up on-screen is simple, visual and yet nods to the inter-textuality of the original book. The letters appear as if ‘typed’ onto screen and the opening shot of Bryony Tallis’s doll house gives immediate foreground of the manipulation that she works in her fiction work and the real world relationship she destroys.

I will try not to provide too many spoilers, (this could well be futile as both but the book and the film were massively popular and deservedly so) so I will just say this. The plot of the novel hinges and depends on observation, point of view and the interpretation of things that we see not necessarily adding up to what we think. By and large I think this is a trick that the film pulls off a little better than the thoroughly excellent novel. The scene at the fountain in the novel’s opening section is a case in point. Here we read the same scene from the two opposing perspectives, Bryony from the window and Robbie by the fountain. The book dwells, (not unreasonably) on Bryony’s reactions and the scene forms, we later learn, the back bone of a short story.As much as I enjoy writers with the talent to pull off POV switches the whole things, when considered through hindsight feels more than a little like Mrs. Dalloway. This is in fact later added to the novel as a fictional publishers letter and makes the self-awareness feel like trying to have one’s cake and eat it…

The film, is in a sense less limited than the authorial voice and as such the sequence feels like it carries more weight, it’s quick but not superfluous and we as viewers see the tragedy of Bryony’s perception without the self-conscious literary-ness getting in the way. This really should go without saying as multiple camera angles are a stock in trade hall-mark of modern cinema and fit the bill perfectly for the scene at the fountain and in the library. Ronan really shines in the opening parts of the film, managing to convey not only the immediate reaction to what she see’s but also managing to show the viewer the immaturity of her character that leads her to these assumptions and the fateful accusation. The power of film is that it manages in moments what the novel would take pages to do. In seconds we can see the same event from multiple POV, and whilst as an English student I adore the writing of authors who master close third narration, the film switches things so immediately that it hightens the emotional  heft of the crucial scenes, – the library and the fountain etc.

To be honest I think this would be something one could say about the whole film, whereas Robbie’s time in  France are given over to his thought of his beloved and the limitations of being a solider by McEwan, Wright simply blows this part of the novel to dust. The five-minute tracking sequence, (a Joe Wright trademark) is simply jaw dropping. The viewer is given a sense of scale and mass suffering that the book comes nowhere near to accomplishing. The sequence in the cinema is another particular highlight, combining self-aware cinematics with pitch perfect romance.

Other particular stand out things about this as an adaptation is how the whole mechanics of the film work together. Everything here is contributing to the wider aim, the score especially does a great job, the type writer effect in the opening moments being an extremely good example and Wright’s arts training shines in the overall look of the film – the dress Knightly wears being declared as the most stylish to appear in film. To sum up, it capture the essence of the book and helps it transcend the limitations placed upon it by the novel form.

Just pause here for a second, because here comes the BUT that the whole article has been building up to. Ready??


There is one area where I feel that this transition from literature to film, as well as it is achieved, doesn’t quite work – the ending. Whereas the ending in the novel aims at pathos as Bryony is brought back to the scene of her crime and her internal guilt is left with her. Whilst the ending of the film is very VERY good the nature of the TV interview seems designed at explication of guilt rather than acceptance. In the book, Bryony recognises that she can give them happiness, but that it would be ‘self-serving to let them forgive me.’ As haunting as Vanessa Redgrave makes the final scene, to me it smacks a little of self-justification, which is a little beneath this film and book. (Damn it, realised I said I wouldn’t do this!) Whilst that is just my opinion, I think the exteriority of a TV interview fits in with the very film-ness of Atonement as a whole, though personally I

Oh, and if you haven’t seen Benedict Cumberbatch’s scenes go away right now and watch the film. See? Fucking terrifying! And don’t over simplfy, it isn’t just the overall creepiness of the scene with Lola or even the fact that he’s a rapist. It’s this. He marries his victim and NO-ONE says anything about it. No-one. At all. Not even Lola. Just think about that, but not for too long or you’ll have nightmares about that marriage…Now, back to the point.

So, there you are. An adaptation of grace, poise and cinematic worth that does credit to the original source material. Despite my few niggles with this I still think it’s just brilliant British culture at its best. Reading over, the keen-eyed reader may come to the conclusion that all I’ve done is, yet again, spend my time splitting hairs. But thanks to Ian McEwan and Joe Wright, they are, at the very least, interesting hairs to split.