Sherlock Holmes reviewed

Sherlock Holmes is director Guy Richie’s much anticipated, and potentially very risky, reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved super-sleuth. Gone is the deerstalker hat; the aloof intellectualism, and in its place is a bohemian hero just as capable of using his fists as his unsurpassed brain power.

Sherlock Holmes’ unconventional approach to an iconic character could have backfired horribly, alienating fans of the novels and the assorted Sherlock film and TV series. The fact that the film effortlessly pulls off its new interpretation is one of the best things about it. Unfortunately though, the film is also let down by one of the worst things about it – a convoluted storyline that only begins to make sense right at the very end.

Sherlock Holmes starts off superbly, with the title character (Robert Downey Jr.) and his sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) pursuing Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), an aristocrat-turned-serial killer, who dabbles in the occult and has harnessed dark forces for his personal gain. Pitting Sherlock’s scientific mind against the unfathomable supernatural is an interesting contrast and allows for a good portion of the film’s action to take place in secret temples and dark tunnels marked with black magic symbols. Dan Brown, eat your heart out…

At this point it’s worth mentioning how brilliantly Sherlock Holmes captures the look of grimy, gothic Victorian era London. The film was largely shot on location in the city, with CGI-enhancements presumably used to strip away all the 21st Century influences, and the end result is stunning. Then again, the mid to late 1800s is one of my favourite periods in English history, and it’s a treat to see it so well depicted onscreen here.

It’s also a treat to see how well the “new” Holmes and Watson are handled. Many of the film’s best moments are quiet scenes involving the interactions of these two friends, who frequently, and amusingly, behave like an old married couple. In both cases the characters are an interesting mix of new qualities and established canon features. So Downey Jr’s Holmes is a genius tormented by an inability to shut off his analytical mind – which is useful in hand-to-hand combat but gets more than one glass of wine thrown in his face during social events. Think of television’s Gregory House, who is, of course, based on the literary Sherlock Holmes.

In the 2009 film, boredom sees Sherlock Holmes turn to alcoholism (although curiously not morphine or cocaine use) and mischievous experiments involving anaesthetics and Watson’s beloved bulldog. Meanwhile, Jude Law makes Watson a svelte neatness freak and reliable back-up man, whose keen mind and military service make him as formidable an opponent as Holmes. Just keep him away from the betting tables.

It’s difficult to fault the performances of Downey Jr, who surprisingly tones down the expected arrogance and obnoxiousness here, and Law. They make an excellent onscreen team. If the movie had just centred on them, it probably would have been better. However, the filmmakers feel the need to introduce a love interest for Holmes in the form of American femme fatale Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). Adler shares some enjoyably charged exchanges with Holmes, but her presence in the film unnecessarily complicates the plot.

Although it is Adler’s case that pulls Holmes from his depression, and puts him back on the trail of Blackwood, the result is a situation reminiscent of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, where characters seem to continually retread the same turf, and are repeatedly confronted by opponents who want to kill them for apparently no good reason other than they’re there.

Adler is also one of those annoying characters who conveniently pop up wherever the action is, sometimes is caught, sometimes breezes through situations and then, despite her ingenuity, will do something unbelievably stupid like run to the top of Tower Bridge to “escape.”

With hindsight the mystery at the heart of Sherlock Holmes isn’t that complicated – Blackwood has a disappointingly generic goal – but one gets the feeling that Adler and all the running back and forth are designed to make events seem more knotty than they actually are.

Still though, for all its flaws, Sherlock Holmes is a solid adventure-mystery, a firm 7 out of 10. Although never laugh-out loud hilarious the film is consistently pleasantly amusing, and its action scenes are exciting and very well choreographed. For an undemanding evening at the cinema, it’s recommended entertainment.


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