REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes (film, 2009)

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

I really like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories and novels about Sherlock Holmes – more famous than his creator – and wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to watch Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film version which takes huge liberties with the characters and plot, even if Robert Downey Jr. was playing Holmes.

It was on one of the satellite channels I get in my hotel in Doha, and I thought I’d watch, partly since the Literary Omnivore had reviewed it some time ago and enjoyed it. To my surprise I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. The beginning of the film sets the tone for what is to follow, with Holmes running through the streets, followed by the police in carriages, descent into what looks like the crypt of St Paul’s cathedral, and the prevention of murder by evil Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Three months later, Blackwood, convicted for previous murders and the practice of black magic, is executed. Watson (Jude Law) pronounces him dead after the hanging.

A couple of days later, however, Blackwood appears to have risen from the dead, and Holmes, naturally investigates, aided by Watson as usual. Rachel MacAdams appears as Irene Adler, whose previous besting of Holmes, is only alluded to by Watson, though readers of the short stories will know how she did so from ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. In the film she’s working for someone she fears, and both helps and hinders Holmes in his investigations. Also running through the plot is Watson’s relationship with Mary Morstan (who actually enters the Holmes canon in The Sign of the Four, a completely unrelated novel), which Holmes consistently tries to sabotage.

The plot was fast-moving and slightly ridiculous, with bare-knuckle boxing matches, incendiary devices, supposed magic and a wonderfully grimy-looking Victorian London. One quibble was the use of Tower Bridge, under construction in the film, but seemingly located miles away from its real position on the Thames. It seemed a little odd to have Holmes and Watson travelling from Baker Street to Pentonville prison via east London, and for Irene to appear on the bridge after her brief crawl from the Houses of Parliament through the sewers near the end of the film. It does make a great location for the film’s climax, though. And although Downey Jr. makes a good stab at the English accent, he was often hard to understand – mumbling a bit in some places.

Watson is played much less buffoonishly than he can appear in the stories, a man of action who can wield a sword and a revolver and can kick doors down. Downey Jr.’s Holmes is an interesting take on Holmes – still very intelligent and analytical, but far more physical than he’s shown in the stories. The relationship between the two of them in the film is also quite different – the literary Watson is a good deal more respectful of Holmes’s analytical skills and of him as a person than this cinematic version, where they chaff each other and in which Holmes seems to value his friend more. The attempts to alienate Watson from Mary however are very much not canon, though their relationship in the film is rather sweet.

The music by Hans Zimmer was splendid (so much so that I’ve bought the soundtrack album), and really contributed to the mood of the film, seeming to drive its plot and point the humorous bits. Unlike most of Zimmer’s soundtracks (which are usually fully orchestral), his score for Sherlock Holmes used what sounded like a gypsy orchestra such as Taraf de Haïdouks, with lots of screechy violins and cimbalom.

If you’re a real Holmes purist, this film may not be to your taste, but I found it an engaging and enjoyable riff on Doyle’s classic tales. The ITV versions with Jeremy Brett stick much more closely to canon, and Edward Hardwicke makes a pretty good Watson.

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2 Responses to REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes (film, 2009)

  1. Great review Ela for a film that mostly succeeds on its own terms, which is probably the most you can ever hope for an overblown, big budget, Hollywood blockbuster. I was also slightly puzzled by Downey Jr’s slightly wavering accent since in CHAPLIN he proved he could do a much better one. I love the Brett series, especially the first series with David Burke who to me was a real revelation as an enthusiastic and more nakedly vulnerable Watson.

  2. Ela says:

    I don’t remember much about David Burke’s version of Watson – I think since he only did the first series – but I did like him carrying around a notebook all the time: it makes a lot of sense given the details given in the stories that Watson would have been noting things!

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