Like many people, I had only a fleeting familiarity with the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective. Having never read a page of his exploits or watched a single film adaptation, I garnered much of my knowledge from the heavily influenced Basil, The Great Mouse Detective (1986). Nevertheless, there has always existed within popular consciousness a quintessential ideal of the Sherlock Holmes character as an elderly and polite British gentleman with a pipe in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other. Hardly surprising then that this new 21st Century re-imagining was at first greeted with cries of outrage as our beloved literary icon was transformed into a brawling action hero - played by a bloody yank no less! Blasphemy! And with gangsta-lovin’ cockney hardman Guy Ritchie behind the helm, I naturally expected the worst. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In retrospect, much of the ill feeling associated with Sherlock Holmes could probably be traced back to its original trailer which resembled more of a Jackie Chan and (place comedian here) vehicle than a 19th century detective story. The reality, however, is that although it may not be as faithful as one may have hoped, Holmes still retains the traditional elements whilst applying a refreshingly modern approach. Much of the credit must go to Robert Downey Jr who, in full-on Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow mode, does a remarkable job of fashioning a truly unique alter ego that’s entirely his own. His is not a foppish ladies man but a tortured genius, a brilliant but obsessive sociopath whose only satisfaction comes from outsmarting the world around him. It’s a truly bemusing performance, at once both comical and intense and once again confirms Downey as one of the finest character actors around.
In fact, the entire cast in uniformly strong: Jude Law finally expresses some talent as grounded sidekick Dr. Watson with an understated delivery that plays brilliantly off his mentor’s wild antics and the villainous Blackwood is performed with a zealous theatricality too good for pantomime. Rachel McAdams is perhaps the weakest link, although this is less an error on her part than that of the filmmakers who towards the films climax, unnecessarily transform this femme fatale character into a romantic endeavour.
Richie manages to distance himself from his Lock, Stock roots and directs with great aplomb. His trademark flashy camerawork remains intact but never at the risk of conveying style over substance and actually lends a great deal of sophistication to the grimy London setting which is fantastically brought to life with CG architecture. One minor problem is his handling of fight sequences, which like Batman Begins (2005) are often shot up-close and in an altered frame rate, both of which dramatically disorientate the viewer. Thankfully, the action is never excessive, often relevant, and could be said to take a backseat to all the detective work, which is essentially what this film is all about. The story is complex and engaging and the dialogue is beautifully layered with scientific discourse and poetic refinement. The final denouement may be a bit too expositional as Holmes reveals the villains nefarious crimes in a manner unbefitting of the films deeply subtle clues, but this is a minor chink in an otherwise solid structure. A success? The answer is elementary.