Sunday, January 3, 2010

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes

Few movies are as under-served by their marketing campaigns as Sherlock Holmes.  Contrary to what the trailers would have you believe, this is actually a good movie; perhaps even a very good movie.

When contemplating a piece like Guy Richie's Sherlock Holmes, one is drawn to compare it with the original and with other film adaptations.  It is unavoidable, and so that is where we shall start.

The observation and deductive skills of Holmes remain intact.  Few adaptations have ever conveyed the scope of his mind as faithfully.  The movie's portrayal of Dr. Watson is likewise commendable.  Rather than dismiss him as a bumbling fool, Jude Law's version is more akin to the original: he's present to keep Holmes alive rather than keep him amused.

As soon as the movie had established these constants, it was easy to form the expectation that this was intended as a recreation of the original; a translation similar to the Granada series.

Instead, the movie deviates in unexpected directions.  And, for many fans of the character, their enjoyment or repulsion will come down to a simple question of whether they're able to come to terms with those deviations.

We can respect - even sympathize - with those who are simply unable to accept the changes.  Indeed, we spent much of the movie wondering if these alterations were random.  But then it all fell into place.

This is not merely an adaptation of Holmes, but rather an amalgamation of a half dozen genres inspired by the detective.  This version of Sherlock Holmes is no gentleman, because he is no longer a detective in the tradition of Victorian England: his behavior - and relationship with the police - is rooted in the tradition of American noir.  The setting, while somewhat historically grounded, is enhanced with steampunk sensibilities.  The gadgets and plots of the villains, while stopping short of outright science fiction, are reminiscent of Bond.  And this incarnation of Irene Adler owes less to Arthur Conan Doyle than to Catwoman.

It's easy to become disoriented watching such a film, but there's a method to this production.  All of these elements, from steampunk to Chandler to Bond to Batman, owe a dept of inspiration to the detective of Baker Street.  Guy Richie, it seems, is collecting the interest.

In a way, this is a movie about the history of the detective story, and as such, it's fairly brilliant.  Though, in all honesty, the movie could have benefited from being a bit less subtle in its approach.  There was an attempt to balance these elements against those of the original, and the mixture felt a touch off.

Still, this is a film that deserves to be seen.  It's exciting and intriguing, featuring some exceptional performances and fascinating characters.  On a scale between one and five stars, where five represents... let's go with Donner's Superman (it's an adaptation, after all)... then Sherlock Holmes is deserving of three and a half.


Sam said...

I have to ask this: What is it about Donner's Superman that inspires such love?

It has its moments, and they are strong moments, but the movie goes off the rails as soon as Ned Beatty shows up with his doopty doopty doop theme song and never really gets back on.

Obviously they can adapt the crazy Julie Schwartz/Curt Swan era as easily as anything from Superman's history, but it doesn't mean I don't cringe when I watch it on film.

(also I thought SH was ok.)

Erin Snyder said...

Good Lord, man! What a can of worms!

First up, you're only seeing half of the picture if you look at Donner's Superman and see Schwartz and Swan. Yeah, part of what makes the movie stand out is the degree it was a tribute to the character's past. But it also introduced several new elements and ideas into the mythos.

Superman as a Christ-archetype, so far as I know, was invented for the movie. Having his adoptive mother live to see Clark become Superman was introduced here. And Hackman's Luthor, while still a bit on the absurd side, influenced the character for decades: the first seeds of Luthor as a brilliant industrialist were planted.

Let's be honest, though: if Superman came out today, I'd never stop complaining about Beatty (or the sheer zaniness of Lois Lane, for that matter).

But it came out in 1978, and it treated Superman like a mythical god. It descended into slapstick here and there around minor characters, but it took the Man of Steel completely seriously.

It made the world realize how significant superheroes are to our culture. That's why it inspires such love.