I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, having read all the stories, including his famous meeting with Harry Flashman, VC, and seen at least part of the classic Brett[1] television series, which is generally acclaimed as the best of the lot. I think Holmes is an important character in the pre-history of both steampunk and the modern genre of Cthulhu-derivative works, and undoubtedly influenced in some subtle way movies (and comics) like From Hell and Sleepy Hollow. I’m also a fan of Guy Ritchie’s crime movies Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, even though their glorification of the English criminal classes sticks in my craw now that I have lived in London and experienced the reality of the kind of scum he depicts in those movies.

So, I was interested to see how he would handle Sherlock Holmes in this movie, there being a risk that Holmes would become a kind of rock-n-roll gangsta crime fightaaaah! But in fact it’s really really good, even though it’s not based on any one extant Holmes story. It preserves the essential characteristics of Holmes and Watson, and is set around the time that their relationship is failing, when Watson is preparing to marry. It also preserves another essential element of the Holmes milieu – a criminal case whose only possible explanation is magic, but which in the end is all soluble through the application of modern scientific methods. It also wraps in some of those other Holmes classics: secret orders, Moriarty, and nefarious plots. Some of Holmes’s best properties are depicted in a very clever way consistent with Ritchie’s style, for example:

  • In the midst of a fight, time pauses and we see Holmes deducing the steps to victory, all played out in slow motion; then action resumes at full speed and we see his plan in motion to its vicious conclusion, including a prognosis for the loser’s physical and psychological repair – very much like the flash-forwarding through the nasty fight scenes in Ritchie’s other movies
  • Some of Holmes other techniques, that receive no attention in the books, are elucidated in very cunning style. For example, we see a brief interaction between a disguised Holmes and one of his adversaries, and a little later we backtrack from the moment Holmes decides on the confrontation to the confrontation itself, seeing all the fragmented moments in which he oh-so-casually assembles a perfect disguise as if by accident – in fact this is, I think, one of the best depictions I have ever seen of either Holmes’s method or the sheer brilliance of his investigative style, easily as good as anything Conan Doyle assembled
  • We also see a few of the moments in which Holmes is out-witted or foiled from the point of view of his adversary in that same shifting, tricky style so characteristic of Ritchie movies, and we see a few moments in the past of some of the characters in the same fragmented style, but presented so as to confuse us while leaving clues for later

I think also this movie gives some roundedness to Holmes’s character that doesn’t exist in previous efforts. I was surprised that even though this is a Ritchie movie, Holmes’s characteristic cocaine addiction (so readily left out of onscreen depictions in the past) was also left out of this version; but it was admirably replaced by a preference for strong drink and illegal fighting (with Holmes the participant, and Watson betting on him). Something that I don’t like about the books and the Pertwee version is that Holmes is actually a really unlikeable character, but the narrative style of the books and his heroic status mean that he is often depicted as a near-perfect person. In fact he’s an arrogant, misogynist prick (beautifully lampooned in the Flashman novels), and this movie manages to capture some of that part of his character – the way he uses Watson without informing him, his dubious experiments, his insufferable manner and bad attitude towards women. It also reduces Watson from his stuffy near-perfect personality to a man with a gambling addiction and a weakness for his friend, and by rendering both of them a little younger and fitter than standard interpretations it also makes their physical prowess more believable, as well as giving it some context – Holmes is a prize fighter, and Watson a dab hand with a sword stick due to his military career.

Another interesting aspect of this movie is its liberation of Watson from the narrative role, done explicitly – by giving Holmes rather than Watson the voiceover parts and by setting the movie at the point in their relationship where Watson is moving out and trying to break from Holmes. It gives an implicit nod to his traditional role by noting that he has a bunch of diaries he plans to write up one day. This explicit removal of Watson from the narrative centre also gives us a better opportunity to experience both Holmes’s genius and his unpleasantness, and I think this makes him a much more interesting character.

The movie is, of course, also very amusing, with some intense combat scenes done in typical chunky, nasty Ritchie style, and some very funny interactions. Traditionally Holmes is a little stuffy, but in this he is also capable of some very entertaining repartee, as is Watson. In fact, Watson in this movie is a far superior character to the Watson of the books, and Jude Law an excellent choice to play him.

As a study of Holmes I think this movie makes an interesting contribution to the canon of works on this excellent character, and as a Victorian detective movie it is also an excellent addition to the genre. It’s also a fun movie with an interesting plot, and lots of tricks and deceptions that it takes some time to work out. The choreography is smooth and stylish, the acting excellent and the pace just right. I recommend this to any fan of Holmes who is not so stuck-in-the-mud that they can only tolerate a traditional depiction of a character whose traditional representations have been done to death and, in any case, perfected and exhausted by Brett. For those who don’t care about Holmes as a literary figure, but want to see a rollicking detective story with a hint of steampunk and Guy Ritchie’s traditional blend of humour and violence, I also recommend this movie. For those who insist on their Sherlock being stiff-necked, stuck up and straight from the books, I can only recommend a review of the Brett series, and perhaps a shot of cocaine…

fn1: I originally wrote Pertwee in some kind of strange brain-spasm