Monday, 10 May 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Director Guy Ritchie and his five (!) credited screenwriters threatened to put a lot of noses out of joint by reinventing Sherlock Holmes as a man’s man with a fondness for sweaty underground boxing and other, stereotypical yardsticks of masculinity to beef him up for our anti-intellectual age. In truth the idea of playing up Holmes’ grungier bohemian side, with an almost sadomasochistic taste for physical and emotional punishment, is just as legitimate an interpretation of Conan Doyle’s iconic creation as any other, if one has paid any attention to the hints of Holmes enjoying penetrating the opium-abusing demimonde in 'The Man With the Twisted Lip’ and wondered where he picked up the unnerving strength with which he straightens out the bent poker in ‘The Speckled Band’. Both Holmes and Watson were still relatively young men when introduced in ‘A Study in Scarlet’, man of wit and man of action in neat balance, although Doyle tended to draw them along with himself into middle-age in defiance of his own hazy chronology.

There is of course still friction between these versions of Holmes. Doyle’s Holmes maintained an Olympian, self-imposed dissociation from the everyday world and yet seemed to pick up a vast and intricate understanding of it through means never properly intimated, but then the author always had him viewed through the necessarily limited lens of Watson’s reflections, which allowed Holmes to retain his mystique. Watson, in spite of what the intervening decades' worth of portrayals have suggested, only actually resided with him at 221B Baker Street for a short time, before getting married to the heroine of the second Holmes outing, the novel “The Sign of Four”. What Holmes got up to when he wasn’t around is always a reasonable guessing game. So my complaints about Sherlock Holmes certainly aren’t based in reactionary purism, but in the fact Ritchie’s film is a silly, overwrought, over-budgeted action-franchise pillar of blandness. Ritchie, whose graceless, hammy style was one I tired of with Snatch (I haven’t watched anything he’s made in between) is contoured into the flavourless form of the modern CGI-speckled blockbuster, with a vision of period London that suggests bastardised Tim Burton, and a story that, at almost every turn, borrows shamelessly from a dozen other feeble supervillain-tries-to-rule-the-world narratives, suggesting that rather than absorbing Doyle’s stories and the best franchise reboots, the makers are still under the spell of the likes of the puerile film adaptations of Alan Moore’s works.

There’s a big lumbering plot with a lot of detail at play, but rarely has such an intricate story felt so inert. I would say the film begins in medias res, if I was sure Ritchie knew what that meant, so I’ll restate. The film begins a fair distance already into the plot, with Holmes (Robert Downey Jnr), Watson (Jude Law), and Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) rushing to prevent Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, a charismatic actor utterly wasted), a loony lord indeed, adding a sixth young woman to his roster of sacrifices for some cabalistic purpose – what that purpose is and how it connects to the rest of the narrative that follows is barely perceivable. After Holmes successfully divines how to beat the crap out of a guard, he and his aides succeed. Blackwood seems however remarkably confident in his own return from the grave whilst waiting for the hangman, and, after he has been neck-stretched and pronounced dead by Watson, he soon rises from his grave and begins terrorising London again.

Meanwhile Holmes gets catty with Watson for leaving Baker Street - and him - for a new location, in planning to get married to girlfriend Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), and Holmes’ amour fou Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is in town, trying to interest him in a sideline case that proves linked in unexpected (well, not really) ways to the Blackwood intrigue. All this soon leads Holmes to a secret society of noblemen engaged in magic practises and a programme to terrify the populace into submission with a weapon of mass destruction, a storyline replete with pseudo-steampunk influences with Holmes and company grafted inorganically on. Although the plot tries to meld the mystic-macabre side of Conan Doyle’s interests with the great detective in a way he never dared, it’s amazing how perfunctory all the ancient rituals, secret rooms, murdered women and gloating would-be tyrants are, because it’s more like someone had a checklist of elements to employ rather than any delight in telling a story.

In any event, Ritchie would have failed it, because he seems to have no idea how to move from one scene to another. Sequence after sequence in the middle third displays a lousy sense of narrative rhythm, and the story deliberately jogs in circles to provide the regulation number of complications, before artlessly allowing Holmes’ actual detections to be explained as afterthought exposition. Examine if you will a scene late in the film, in which Holmes, Watson, and Irene barely survive a bomb blast. Holmes awakens alone, concussed and advised by a friendly policeman (William Houston) to flee, Watson’s fate established by dialogue, and then Ritchie cuts to a scene of Irene, apparently no worse for wear, having left the bomb scene and trying to escape the clutches of her controller. Not only does this not make much emotional sense (Irene runs off from Holmes after he and Watson have saved her life?), it’s damn shoddy as film grammar and expositional craft. Irene's appearance in the next scene seems to have no overt link to the last, and how she actually came to be in that situation in the first place was badly set up.

Subsequently, in the (yawn) action climax atop the under-construction Tower Bridge, there's a stab at Hitchcockian peril, as Irene is pushed seemingly to her death by Blackwood. Ritchie, rather than leaving her fate unrevealed for the moment, or constructing a tense situation where it’s clear Irene is in danger whilst they battle, instead reveals with a lame cutaway that she’s lying unconscious on a ledge. So there is tension neither from her unresolved fate no from her perceived endangerment. Ritchie then forgets the rule Hitchcock himself learnt with Saboteur: you don’t make the bad guy the one in danger from the big drop. These are some examples of poor direction that result in a film with astounding ingredients proving utterly underwhelming and slipshod. It’s not wrong to concentrate on such lacks in a bit of fun, when creating memorable bits of fun requires skill in rendering these elements. Ritchie’s visual stunts, like slow-motion effects that emphasise jarring acts of violence, and tying Holmes’ preternatural skills of strategic calculation to mere fisticuffs, suggests the effects of TV commercials are the highest form of culture on the horizon.

The reproduction of familiar adventure film elements is utterly by rote. Every film like this has a hulking, Jaws-like henchman who’s hard to bring down. This time said heavy is French, played by Robert Maillet, and he's featured in a lengthy, would-be set-piece fight scene involving a prototypical cattle-prod and a launching ship, which is actually, incredibly boring. That the film is worth sticking out is chiefly due to the strong production values, the beauties of the cityscapes and clever end credits sequences rather undeniable, and some unexpected moments of smartness, mainly in riffing on the central characters and their angular personalities and capabilities. Like, say, Holmes, Watson, and the giant thug conversing casually in French in their extended brawl, and Downey’s solidly conceived and played Holmes airily bossing about dazzled young policemen like the Anna Wintour of detectives, quoting his canonical line “Data! Data! Data! I cannot make bricks without clay!” as a catchphrase he can toss off with a diva’s cadence.

The script offers some initial delight in dovetailing the new Holmes with detail from the books, like his shooting VR (Victoria Regina) in the wall suggesting the intellectual equivalent of Elvis going to pot. Downey and Law manage to kindle a spark of mutually suspicious yet dogged affection, a comradely repartee between them maintained in spite of knowing each other’s bullshit through and through. Then there are scenes that make no sense at all, like how Watson ends up stoking the boiler of a steamer whilst Holmes keeps the owner rollicking in hilarity with jokes – is it necessary that as well as being a tough guy Holmes also has to be a funny guy? And why would Watson get stuck in such a situation? This purely nonsensical concession to mere comic effect is lame.

Such inconsequence doesn’t help the efforts to spice the traditional harrumphing asexuality of Holmes with a hint of queeny resentment of Watson opting out of a very vaguely suggested boho fuck-buddy romance for a hetero-normative arrangement whilst Holmes himself faces up to that temptation with Irene, who has to drug him to kiss him (okay I don’t think that’s the only reason she does that, but what other purpose it served I’m not sure: either way he’s left handcuffed naked to a bed). Attempts at double-entendre banter are paltry at best, and carefully arranged to be interchangeable with a far more standard buddy-movie motif of bros irritated by not being put before hos. The insinuation of equally delicious perversity in Holmes’ having occasional time-out hate-sex with Irene in a relationship tinged with transgressive fascination for a beautiful criminal and expanding the hinted S&M edge are logical extensions of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’’s presentation of “The Woman” in Holmes life.

But both sexual aspects of the film, heralding an irresistibly kinky triangular Holmes-Watson-Irene romance, added further complexity by Irene’s (otherwise inexplicable) alternations between period-doll dresses and gender-bending suits, are utterly failed in fear of explicating them in a throwaway, toothless Disney blockbuster: this threesome instead come across like an older, more mercurial Harry, Ron, and Hermione. This makes for a pertinent revelation of an odd disconnection in modern pop culture: the need to draw out “hidden” depths in retro icons and imbue them with “human” characteristics and a knowing "contemporary" sensibility, and yet also afraid of upsetting the apple cart by having the courage to carry through on such impulses in servicing the broadest possible audience of dullards.

Downey’s Holmes doesn’t quite amaze me, partly because as intelligently oddball an actor as Downey is, his Holmes isn’t allowed to counterpoint his eccentricity with a particularly convincing intellectual force: never the scary, almost contemptuous vigour that Basil Rathbone’s or Peter Cushing’s editions possessed. Emotional pettiness suggested by his early exploration of Mary’s background through deduction, sufficiently offensive and arrogant to make her toss a glass of wine in face, and concomitant darkness in the character's disconnection from problems that don't service his ego, doesn’t add up to anything more than the usual crusty jerk with a heart of gold, and the tension with Mary (who has no connection to the one Conan Doyle wrote about) resolved with far too much ease. It’s still a fine performance from one of the current pantheon’s most waywardly inventive talents, but the immediately appealing actor-to-character match simply isn’t completely fulfilled.

Law, on the other hand, is surprisingly, affectingly stalwart, alternating breezy valour and resentful, censorial smartness to Downey’s dissolute showboating. McAdams is snappy too, with an underwritten role: it’s a pity that her cheeky criminal directness isn’t allowed to properly counterpoint the upright heroes, except in one marvellous moment when they debate how to tackle a bunch of bad guys, only for her to strut in and start blazing with a six-shooter. She’s got spunk, and she matches Downey at least in the fact the film doesn’t finally know what to do with them. Other strong performers in the cast are generally trampled in the rush.

1 comment:

buddy2blogger said...

Great post about the movie!

Downey Jr has neither the physicality or the body language of the canonical Sherlock Holmes... Just my opinion though...

Interestingly, Mark Strong who plays the antagonist is way more suited to play Holmes with his tall stature, sharp acquiline nose, intelligent eyes.

Happy to meet a like-minded Sherlockian :)