What A Busy Afterlife You’re Having: A Review of “Sherlock Holmes”

The side of a wooden crate fills the frame. White painted letters beside helpful directional arrows read “This Way Up”. Then the camera angle moves–downwards. Suddenly, the ground and the sky have shifted positions. Robert Downey, Jr. in Victorian clothes chases a big bruiser near the harbour. They’re running upside-down. The camera dances and whirls through the air in a misguided attempt to make running look interesting, arighting itself in the process. The crate was not sitting in the sky. The camera fooled us, making us believe (if only for an instant) that the laws of nature had been rewritten. But if you think about it carefully, we were actually fooled twice. Because for the words on the crate to be read the way we did, with the camera on its head, the crate itself had to be placed upside-down. The rule of which way was meant to go up was dutifully noted, dutifully demonstrated…and then conveniently ignored.

We live in an age of remakes. We seem to enjoy “new and improved” versions of stories we have long known and loved. And not just any stories, but heroic stories. Comic book superheroes have dominated the theatres for almost a decade now. The retelling of legends, it turns out, is quite popular these days. Sometimes the attempt is made to remain faithful to the source material. Sometimes everything is turned completely on its ear. A new word has entered our vocabulary: Reimagined. The reason behind this phenomenon is not something I’m prepared to guess at, but the word does interest me. What need is there to reimagine what has already been imagined? Surely once is enough. Especially when it has the longevity of one of the greatest detectives who never lived.

“What a busy afterlife you’re having,” says Sherlock Holmes to the apparently resurrected villain Lord Blackwood. The same could be said of Holmes himself, not to mention Watson. The pair long ago achieved apotheosis from fictional characters to popular icons. As such, a steady stream of novels, short stories, plays, films, radio dramas, comic books, computer games, and virtually every other medium you can think of has been flowing ever since the publication of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales. The latest screen incarnation stars Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law and is directed by Guy Ritchie. Many people involved with the film have claimed in interviews that the film is a return to the spirit of the original tales. And I don’t doubt that they read them.

But they must have been reading them upside-down.

I can easily point to a dozen references to elements of the original stories in the movie, including lines by Holmes himself (“My mind rebels at stagnation”; “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has any data”; “Crime is common, logic is rare”). But everything feels twisted somehow, as if its all been taken out of context just for the sake of working it in to please purist critics. A prime example: At one point in the film Holmes says to Watson: “You have the grand gift of silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.” In the original story (“The Man With The Twisted Lip”, in case you were wondering) it is meant as a genuine compliment on Watson’s ability to not interfere with Holmes’s train of thought when he needs to concentrate. In the movie…Watson just punches Holmes in the nose. Granted, he may have deserved it with the way he was acting towards Watson’s fiancee, but instead of being funny as intended, it just comes off as juvenile. In fact, the entire movie treads a fine line between pastiche and parody that occasionally left me wondering what the point of the whole stunt even was. I was also, unlike several other people I’ve spoken to, unconvinced by the portrayal of Victorian London. I’ve read too much of the period’s literature to be taken in by a couple of horse-drawn carriages and some cobblestone streets. Sherlock Holmes above almost all other literary creations is an icon of his period. The production design was beautiful, but it failed to mesh with much of the 21st century style dialogue. In one scene Watson calls Holmes an “old cock” (a common slang term at the time), and I had to laugh at the ridiculous strain to be Victorian and modern at the same time; it’s yet another tightrope walk that the movie doesn’t quite succeed in.

Ultimately, though, it’s difficult to remain too upset at the sea-changes of this version. After all, the aforementioned stream of adaptations has produced even quirkier knock-offs. And I wasn’t too surprised at some of the choices made. A number of them have been done before. Pitting the master of rationality against primitive supernatural forces that turn out to be not quite what they seem? Check. A plot involving Freemasons (thinly disguised)? Check. Irene Adler and Holmes in a complicated love affair? Check. For a film that is meant to be a fresh take on the characters, it’s surprisingly unoriginal.

To segue from such a scathing backhanded compliment to calling the film a diverting if unmemorable bit of fun is a bit too difficult for me to really pull off, so I might as well jump right in: The film was a diverting if unmemorable bit of fun. Once I realized that Holmes and Watson weren’t being messed with any more than usual, I was able to sit back and enjoy a relatively entertaining action-adventure movie. I’ve certainly seen worse in my time. In fact, when it was over, I almost regretted that they had used Sherlock Holmes for it. I probably would have enjoyed it even more if they had just come up with an original character, styling him as an homage to the many detectives of Victorian literature including Holmes.

The characters are but pale imitations of the original. The period setting is not so much evoked as it is given a modernized gloss. But ultimately, “Sherlock Holmes” is quite harmless, and not worth the vitriol I was prepared (and indeed, I admit, had started) to throw at it. It may not be as faithful an adaptation of Conan Doyle as I could wish, but it also isn’t as unfaithful as it first appears. It’s fun, it’s a good excuse to enjoy some popcorn, and not a bad choice if you’re at a party and people want to watch a movie.

But it also seems to be driving me closer towards the original stories, towards a warm fire on a foggy London night, towards two characters who have become almost as real to me as my closest friends. If you’ll excuse me, I must pay a call to Baker Street…

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