Elementary? Far From It, a film review

Sherlock Holmes”, Warner Bros, 2009

When looking at the success of previous adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s well-known detective, it could hardly be said that Warner Brothers took a risk with this masterfully reconstructed world that has been imitated countless times in literature, television, and over two hundred films.  Sherlock Holmes remains Britain’s, if not the world’s, most famous detective of all time, with the original works having been reprinted so many times, the number of copies sold is unknown.

This gloriously dark thriller opens with Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and Dr Watson (Jude Law)’s gatecrashing of an occult ritual, setting the scene for the intricate plot which is faithful to Conan Doyle’s interest in the supernatural, most notably in The Hound of the Baskervilles. While conventional detective stories focus on answering the question who, the 2009 Holmes film directly introduces a deliciously villainous antagonist, Lord Blackwood (played to spine-tingling perfection by Mark Strong) and the focus of Holmes’ investigation is on the how, which proves to be equally challenging.

Blackwood is arrested at the beginning of the film, turning the detective structure completely on its head, and subsequently hanged – only to have been apparently resurrected three days later: “What a busy afterlife you’re having”. This not exactly being the police’s area of expertise, the great consulting detective is called back in. The characters are not divided completely into black and white, though – Holmes’ past flame, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams)’s motivations remain enigmatic through to the end.

Holmes’ observations are as perceptive and surprising as ever: “As to where I am, I was, admittedly, lost for a moment between Charing Cross and Holborn, but I was saved by the bread shop on Saffron Hill. The only bakery to use a certain French glaze on their loaves … The only mystery is why you bothered to blindfold me at all.”

As expected for a contemporary audience, Holmes keeps up a fast pace that nonetheless retains a chilling tension, most suspenseful in the build-up to the murders. The film makes good use of classic, if not clichéd, symbolism, for example the ravens that omen Blackwood’s movements. The timeline is creatively flexible, featuring stylistic flashbacks, slow-motion and fast-motion shots, keeping the audience on their toes. Other special effects include the sound, which in several sequences is partially muted, giving the effect of ringing ears. Hans Zimmer’s score merges an eclectic orchestra and synthesisers with a powerful, dramatic theme and Irish vocals, bringing a new atmosphere to a eminent, well-loved world.

Holmes is not a film to watch only once. A downside of the film’s pace is the impossible task of absorbing everything in one sitting; the dialogue is delivered too quickly sometimes to catch, particularly Downey Jr’s, and while the flashbacks engage the audience with details they missed the first time, it can feel like making a mockery of minds not as perceptive as Holmes’. However, the silver lining is that the lavish set and the beautifully crafted script display something new to every audience member in the second, fifth, tenth viewing.

The portrayal of Sherlock Holmes focuses more on his character flaws, including his disorganised living and lack of exercising social skills that cause a rift between himself and Watson: “When do I ever complain about you practising the violin at three in the morning, or your mess, your general lack of hygiene, or the fact that you steal my clothes?”, and earns himself a drink in his face from Watson’s fiancée Mary (Kelly Reilly).

The convoluted plot unfolds in more twists and turns than a labyrinth, as Holmes and Watson get embroiled in escapade after escapade, from the giant Frenchman wielding a mallet to the tense slaughterhouse scene, sprinkled liberally with humour all the way through the film: “I wonder if they’d let Watson and me dissect your brain. After you hang, of course. I’d wager there would be some deformity that would be scientifically significant”. The grand finale takes place high above Victorian London, on the half-completed Tower Bridge, amid a stormy sky and falling scaffolding.

Like all good films, the ending leaves some loose ends; that of the faceless Professor Moriarty, and leaves the way open for the sequel, Sherlock Homes 2, due for release later this year.

The End

Copyright Alex Harlequin 2011

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