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.
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.