Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Review Date: 07/21/2015

Rating: 4/5 Peanuts.

In a Nutshell:

Clever, fun and with surprising heart, Robert Downey Jr.’s first turn as the great detective is a refreshing take on a very old character.

Full Review:

I remember being completely surprised by Sherlock Holmes the first time I saw it. I hadn’t been expecting much, and I think it was a classic case of something surpassing your expectations. Having seen this film several times since, I find it infuriatingly difficult to put my finger on exactly why I keep coming back to it. On the surface the film is competently acted, surprisingly witty and contains just enough action and mystery to keep the viewer engaged while simultaneously being remarkably unremarkable in almost all respects. And yet, when I’m perusing my library on the rare Friday or Saturday night when I feel too tired to hit the streets I find myself rewatching this film more often than I’m proud to admit. Why is that?

Well, to quote The Great Detective himself, “there’s nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” The truth of the matter is that while Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes fails to distinguish itself in any of the major categories on which I would try to grade it, it is an absolute master of the little details – something poetically beautiful when you consider the subject matter. Starting out with the most obvious aspect of the film, the score is great. It manages to be thematically honest to the time period of Victorian London so much so that it almost becomes a character in and of itself. Then there’s the acting. I’ll get to the stars in a moment, but since we’re talking about little things let’s start with the little parts. Usually, extras with speaking roles or other extremely minor named roles are filler in a movie like this. And yet, Ritchie has managed to populate the streets of London with a vast array of interesting faces, all of whom at least feel to be honest inhabitants of Foggy Londontown in the latter half of the 1800’s, from the grit in their teeth to the gin-drunk swaggering in their mannerisms. It’s an absolute delight to see.

The leads are all wonderfully well cast as well. Rachel McAdams has a great turn as Irene Adler, a character whom, in the novels at least, serves as the only criminal ever to best Holmes, who endearingly refers to her as “The Woman.” Mark Strong is also a scene stealer, imbuing his Lord Blackwood – a character invented for the film – with just the right about of otherworldly crazy that has the audience thinking he just may be a mad sorcerer after all. And then there are the two leads, Holmes and Watson, the original Dynamic Duo, played masterfully well by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law respectively. While both characters are interesting in their own right, Watson with his history as an injured veteran of the Afghan Wars and Holmes with his myriad of eccentricities, it is their unique relationship together that are what really lends to a compelling viewing experience. Indeed, between the whip smart dialogue, endearing nicknames and inside jokes and subtle unspoken understandings between the two men, one can read layers of subtext and backstory that Ritchie never needs to elaborate on. Like I said, it’s the little things.

To highlight just a few items of the “Old Cock”/“Mother Hen” Holmes/Watson relationship, there’s Holmes’ mindful concern over Watson’s gambling addiction, Watson’s mother-hen maternal care for Holmes during or after one of his many drug and alcohol fueled benders, and the lovers’ spat over Holmes’ abuse of the couple’s “barter system” for clothes in the apartment. Choosing to place the film at the end of a storied career of adventures between the two was an excellent move as I find established relationships such as this one far more interesting than watching them form. Indeed, a major subplot and source of actual tension – rather than mere play fighting – between Holmes and Watson is Watson’s engagement to Mary, played rather well by Kelly Reilly. Holmes sees in it the end of an era, losing an old friend to marriage, something he no doubt sees as a state of being outside his own reach. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance imbues Holmes with a myriad of emotions held just below the surface. Indeed, his ability to convey so much in a wide-eyed and empty stare shows just how masterful the man is as an actor.

And let us make no mistake. No matter how well Sherlock Holmes the film manages to get the little things right, it is Robert Downey Jr.’s turn as Sherlock Holmes the man that is the make-or-break element of the film. And RDJ pulls it off in spades – a feat truly remarkable when you remember that the film was made in 2009, fresh off his jail stint and right after he began rebuilding his career with Iron Man, in a role that will ultimately define it. Yet, in watching Sherlock Holmes, I feel confident that RDJ would be doing just fine in a world where someone other than he was filling out the iron armor. No doubt pulling from personal experience, RDJ’s drug addled Holmes is a sight to behold (a particularly funny line is Watson’s observation that “you do know that what you’re drinking is meant for eye surgery”) and yet his well-honed powers of observation are what drive the film forward. In subsequent viewings, its great following RDJ through the crime scenes – even though Ritchie makes the camera, and thereby the audience, follow Watson – and finding out exactly which pieces of the puzzle he fits into place and when. And the fight scenes are a particularly nice touch. While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes is an accomplished boxer and stick fighter, Ritchie and RDJ have given Holmes a more modern interpretation of the fighting arts, with a surgical, precise approach to fighting incorporating more than a little eastern fighting styles into the mix. The character’s ability to visualize a fight beforehand in stunning slow-motion, and then execute upon his plans in a flurry of action too fast for the eye to follow is, cinematically, a brilliant touch as it serves both to entertain the eye and inform about the character.

There’s much more I could write, but in the interest of (relative) brevity, I’ll just say that the film is delightful. What keeps it from a perfect score is probably unavoidable. The villain, while compelling in his villainy, is uninteresting in his goals. The mystery, while thematically appropriate leaves a similar sense of “so what” with the audience. The problem is one of stakes, an issue in many “save the world” stories. It is the characters, so well written and (probably) even better executed on by their actors, that elevates the film from mediocrity to noteworthiness. If only they had another chance to get it right…