Saturday, 14 January 2012

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

“No girl wants to marry a doctor who can’t tell if a man’s dead or not.”

Before you buy this DVD on film, you might want to consider that it forces you to watch an advert for Blu-Ray lasting several minutes before you get to the menu. This is unacceptable, frankly, and if, unlike me, you don’t prefer your films with subtitles, you’d be much better off recording it off the telly.

Not that my first film to be reviewed in 2012 is particularly great, although Robert Downey Jr’s superlative central performance and Guy Ritchie’s brilliantly executed set pieces make it well worth seeing anyway. It’s a nice idea- Sherlock Holmes as action film- which actually works quite well. Downey’s Holmes is decidedly bohemian, physical, fast-moving and decidedly not asexual, and while this is arguably a departure from “canon”, it’s no more so than many more boring interpretations. And this treatment of the Sherlockian world may not be as good, quality-wise, as Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ superlative Sherlock, it’s no less legitimate an interpretation.

There’s a touch of plywood to Jude Law’s performance, but Downey really shows what a first class actor he is, arguably the single best leading man in contemporary English-speaking cinema. His rakish charisma is reason alone to make this film worth watching, and he’s superb at physical comedy. His facial acting is first class, and it’s very noticeable that he spends the whole film speaking in an accent not his own (flawlessly, I might add, and I’m British) without forgetting to act as well, something which is all too common. His Holmes is as suited to the big screen as Benedict Cumberbatch’s is to television.

Mr Madonna is also a dab hand behind the camera, giving us enough adrenalin-fuelled action sequences to be worthy of a Michael Bay film, although the style is noticeably the same as Lock, Stock and Snatch, despite the period setting. Victorian London looks great, though, if a bit CGI-ey. Except… there’s a certain lack of substance to the storyline, although there’s certainly enough bangs and excitement to carry us through. This Watson, far from being a bumbler, is full of back-chat; I like that. But the characterisation of Holmes suffers from a slight problem. Actually it makes a lot of sense for him to be an action hero, but the deductive skills fall flat, often relying more on obscure chemistry factoids than the sort of deductive leaps that you really expect.

The plot is a rather odd mish-mash of tropes and explosions, taking us from an attempted virgin sacrifice by cowled figures (a nice familiar trope, that!) to alchemy and a vast conspiracy theories involving thinly veiled Freemasons which seem to come straight out of Alan Moore’s From Hell (if you haven’t already done so, read it!). Lord Blackwood seems to be based on the real life Francis Dashwood, leader of the Hellfire Club during the Eighteenth Century. His plan, bizarrely, involves conquering the United States, one of Britain’s main trading partners at the time, which would be a particularly stupid thing to do as it would entirely bugger up the British economy, and the whole point of the British Empire was to make money. Sorry, my bad: I probably shouldn’t be looking too hard at the plot.

Oh, and the scene where Dashwood is hanged is quite visceral and shocking. I don’t object to the violence per se, but people were still being barbarically killed like this well within living memory, and may presumably have living relatives.

There’s a fair bit of what we Doctor Who fans call fanwank here. The inclusion of Irene Adler (the rather good Rachel McAdams) is surprisingly justified here, though, establishing the non-asexuality of Downey’s Holmes, and I suppose Moriarty is in the film to do a bit of sequel-hunting. It tends to work out. If I might nitpick, though, Tower Bridge is still under construction, which would place this film in 1892. This is rather at odds with the Conan Doyle canon, as Holmes is supposed to have fallen down the Reichenbach Falls in 1891 and disappeared for three years. Not, of course, that this kind of obscure wankery is any excuse not to use a good idea for a set-piece.

So this is a rather good action film, although nothing special, but it’s worth watching for Downey’s performance alone.

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