It was about time Sherlock Holmes got the Hollywood treatment. The ongoing fascination with Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of short detective stories (around 15 Holmes films were produced last century, as well as nine series of television adaptations for ITV in the ’80s) meant there was undoubtedly something there in terms of subject matter. But in these modern times, a detective who uses reason and logic as his primary weapons against the baddies just doesn’t sell. What does, as Brit gangster shoot-’em-up king Guy Ritchie knows all too well, is a few snazzy fight scenes and some explosions thrown in for good measure. Unsurprisingly, the trailer had us expecting a departure from all things sedate, refined and Victorian in favour of guns, nudity and six-packs, but that didn’t stop Christmas cinema crowds aplenty flocking to see the film in its opening week.
Elementary, my dear audience
So 2009’s Holmes certainly got the full Ritchie treatment – the question is, did it work? In our opinion, the result wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. Sure, there are a lot of action sequences, and the staid Holmes of old seems now to have morphed into a buff athlete and martial arts expert played by Robert Downey Jr. And the plot, which sees the detective attempt to solve the mystery of a serial killer who appears to have risen from the dead, is a little forgettable and silly. Yet despite this, we were hard-pressed to find a moment in the entire film where we weren’t either having a chuckle or glued to the screen. It might be because Ritchie, a self-confessed fan of the original series from his boarding school days, has left enough elements of the Sherlock character intact – his detached, calculating wit and reasoning, his tendency to substance abuse, his pseudo-sexual devotion to sidekick Dr Watson (Jude Law) – and injected enough intelligence into the screenplay so as not to completely insult fans of the stories. It’s a far departure from the Conan Doyle days, but it’s entertaining in its own right.
A Sherlock for a new era
The reliably brilliant Downey Jr also does a great job in this new incarnation of Holmes. His affected posh accent is an entertainingly camp caricature of the Victorian England stereotype, and his deadpan sarcasm is delivered with fantastic aplomb. Much has been made of the overemphasis of homosexuality in Holmes and Watson’s relationship in this version, but really, we didn’t feel it was overdone or unjustified – the original pair lived together and Holmes in particular had nigh on zero interest in the ladies throughout the 40 years of short stories Conan Doyle wrote about him. Come on now, in this day and age, that’s a subtext worth exploring, which Downey does to great amusement in his frosty exchanges with Watson’s intended bride.
The ending unashamedly sets the scene for a sequel – no doubt Warner Brothers was hoping for a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque franchise depending on the audience reaction. We’re not sure this film had quite the charm of the first Pirates, but would we go and see a second Holmes film? Sure. Ritchie’s adaptation won’t set the world on fire, but for what it’s trying to achieve – bringing the old series to a new audience, and giving us all a couple of hours of entertainment on a dreary winter’s night – you can’t fault it.