We just saw the Guy Ritchie-helmed Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr. as the titular detective. I suppose it was better than I expected, and maybe a bit worse. Better, because it really didn’t alter the Holmes character in any significant ways. Worse, because — despite revved-up action sequences — it was actually pretty boring.
Although I am a huge Arthur Conan Doyle fan, I haven’t read a Holmes story in at least two decades. But as a kid I devoured every published tale, and took in more than a few cinematic adaptations. I was in a Gifted and Talented program in elementary school, and I still remember with great fondness the PBS-endorsed Sherlock Holmes roleplaying game we got to play in class. I mention all this not to tout my credentials as a Holmesologist, but rather to demonstrate that the character is very dear to my heart.
Which is why I put off watching this adaptation for about as long as I could manage. By the time Bill started tweeting about it, however, I knew I had see the damn thing already.
Like I said, it wasn’t bad. I’m not a Guy Ritchie fan. Like, at all. I mean, he fucking married Madonna, for fuck’s sake. Although, I believe that’s called a “beard.” And, considering the high level of barely-contained homoeroticism in Sherlock Holmes, I should say he needs one. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The “bromance” is as old as storytelling itself, even if Ritchie does display an above-average understanding of the phenomenon.
The characterization of Holmes was perfectly appropriate. I typically enjoy Robert Downey Jr. (especially in Weird Science and Less than Zero), so when I heard about him being cast as the famous detective, I thought, “OK — he’s a manic ex-cokehead with odd quirks and magnetism… he should do just fine.” And he did, right down to the accent, which is one of the more consistent I’ve heard from a Yank actor. Jude Law‘s Watson was more than serviceable; actually, it was an improvement over the fusty portrayals other actors have offered over the years. The banter was agreeably British and witty, with the two leads trading brainy barbs like a Victorian-era Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. (That’s TV’s classic “Odd Couple” for our younger readers.)
There was one aspect of this new telling that I was particularly keen on observing. You see, Sherlock Holmes evinces behaviors consistent with high-functioning autism, which in more recent years has come to be termed Asperger’s Syndrome. (Though that may be changing again — there’s currently talk of Asperger’s being lumped back into a generic HFA categorization.) I haven’t talked about it here, but I have AS. Which probably explains why I had such a sense of rapport with Holmes as a child. If you want to know more about my adult diagnosis, have a look at Autistic in the District; there’s also these articles I wrote about neurodiversity). There’s been a healthy amount of discussion about whether Holmes has Asperger’s (I know he’s fictional, but diagnosing him is almost as much fun as retroactively applying the label to folks like Nicola Tesla, who definitely had AS.) This recent New York Times article has a lot of cool evidence to support the “Holmes as Prototypical Aspergian” theory:
In Conan Doyle’s portrayal, Sherlock Holmes at times exhibits all of these qualities. His interactions with others are often direct to the point of rudeness. And even when Holmes is speaking to Watson, his closest friend, his compliments are often closer to a rebuke. In “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” when Watson, pleased with his own detective abilities, reports to Holmes the results of his investigation, Holmes tells him that he isn’t a source of light but a conductor of light, a mere aid in solving mysteries only Holmes himself can untangle.
As for his interests, Holmes brags frequently of his detailed knowledge of all kinds of strange phenomena. He is said to have written a monograph on the differences among 140 cigar, pipe and cigarette ashes. He demonstrates what Asperger called “autistic intelligence” — an ability to see the world from a very different perspective than most people, often by focusing on details overlooked by others. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes boasts that he is able to see the significance of trifles and calls this his “method.”
I guess I just outed myself. Oh, well. At least you now understand my affinity for this character. I’m happy to report that RDJ’s performance is in keeping with the idea of Holmes as a high-functioning autistic, particularly during a scene where the detective and Watson are about to dine with Watson’s fiancée. Holmes arrives at the restaurant before the good doctor and his bride-to-be, and there’s a brief shot where he’s overwhelmed by the sounds of the other diners — chatter, glasses clinking, silverware scraping, etc.. This is precisely the same auditory/sensory overload I often experience in public settings. Later in the same scene, Holmes manages to piss off both Watson and his betrothed through what he likely thought was an amusing intellectual exercise. I’ve been there, dude.
It didn’t bother me at all that Holmes wasn’t the staid cerebral detective of previous adaptations. In my reading of Doyle’s works, the character was always a bit dangerous. He’s got a hatred for any kind of hierarchical authority and does not suffer fools gladly. He’s also a cocaine user who’s into pistols and hazardous chemicals. Just your everyday 19th-century Hunter S. Thompson, then. (Or 21st-century me, minus the prodigious gifts. Well, some of them, anyway.)
As far as action goes, let’s not forget that when Conan Doyle attempted to “retire” his character (unsuccessfully, I might add), he did so in a scene where Holmes and his arch-rival, Professor Moriarty, wrestle straight off a waterfall. This is where the term cliffhanger came from, in case you didn’t know.
I didn’t mind the “occult” slant of the film, as Conan Doyle was very much interested in this subject (see the “Hound of the Baskervilles“), and was himself initiated into an esoteric lodge. The plot of Sherlock Holmes centers on a certain Lord Blackwood (perhaps a portmanteau of fantasy novelist Lord Dunsany and horror scribe Algernon Blackwood) — a sinister magus of high breeding who’s trying to usher in a new era of political/theological control. Story-wise, it borrows far more from Alan Moore‘s brilliant comic From Hell than it does the Doyle canon. Still, I was wowed by Ritchie’s attention to detail in terms of the esoteric set pieces. I’d read that the Blackwood character was based on Aleister Crowley (the epitome of loosely), and it does look as though the filmmakers consulted someone from the OTO for tips on what an authentic ritual chamber would look like. I’ve seen a plenty of depictions of this kind of thing, and dare I say this is the first mainstream movie that gets any of it right, straight down to the garish Egyptian/deco frescoes.
Blackwood is deftly portrayed by Mark Strong, who glowers intensely while delivering stock baddie dialogue. (Curiously, Strong looks a like a cross between Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, both of whom played Holmes.) Yet the villain lacks motivation, which in turns undermines the sense of threat. Ultimately, the plot doesn’t amount to much, although it’s unnecessarily confusing. One of Conan Doyle’s gifts was that he could string together a slew of clues that you noticed but failed to put together until Holmes’ connected them in a summarily dazzling and pedantic lecture. In Ritchie’s film, you really have no idea what you’re supposed to be looking out for, other than the next round of fisticuffs.
Worse still is the female lead, played by Rachel McAdams. If you want to get a sense of how little Guy Ritchie understands women characters, here ya go. He seems to go out of his way to make her look unattractive, slathering on garish makeup and costumes and shooting her from the most unflattering angles. Law and Downey Jr., on the other hand, share intimate carriage rides in which they queenily argue over who cuts a trimmer figure in a waistcoat. I mean, why even bother to have a female lead at all? It only gets in the way of the love between a detective and his doctor.
The action was decent, but it would’ve been greatly enhanced if the story was stronger. Or even interesting. I found myself being more drawn to the banter, which was terrific until it had to get back to advancing the paltry plot. Somewhere between the casting and Ritchies’ wonderful depiction of post-industrial London (no, it wasn’t steampunk, just accurate) was a really great Holmes reboot. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it on the screen. But in my mind, it’s awesome.
Maybe the sequel will improve on the formula. Until then, I’ve got my own high-powered mind and baroque obsessions to keep me entertained.
[x-posted at AID]