Sherlock Holmes is clichéd pigswill
Okay, so I have an admission to make. I first read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character when I was about eleven. It was one of those summers I spent lounging at my gran’s house. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I remember those days very fondly.
Since then I’ve collected all the Sherlock Holmes stories – and other authors and heroes, from Buchan’s Hannay to Fleming’s Bond, are only marginally talented (in Fleming’s case, plainly unimaginative and rubbish) compared to Conan Doyle’s cold, arrogant and brilliantly penned genius.
With that in mind, it was probably a bad idea for me to go see the new Sherlock Holmes movie, which I did tonight. It was, frankly, dreadful. One could have changed the names of everyone involved and never known it for a Sherlock Holmes movie.
Conan Doyle’s pantheon of characters, including Irene Adler – who Holmes, usually uninterested in women, ever referred to with distinction, even if in typical stoic Holmesian fashion - was ruthlessly pillaged in the interest of a rather staid, predictable plot complete with love interest. How boring.
The cinematography and special effects were, without question, marvellous. Yet they were the crutches of the movie, distractions rather than complementary to the plot. In fairness there were patent attempts to fix this, but rather clumsily in Downey Jr/Holmes’s summation of the case, as he tries to draw something from each event.
A final battle between Holmes and Lord Unmemorable and Camply Sinister Villain atop the half-built Tower Bridge was just silly.
Minor chronological irregularities, such as the story being set in 1891, despite Conan Doyle’s Watson having been married in 1887, are easy to ignore and I shan’t bother with them except to wonder what size of penis all these directors have, that they feel insecure enough about their craft to pointlessly change all manner of details about the story they pillage.
Greatest among Guy Ritchie’s sins, however, was his remorseless caricature of Holmes. Whilst Conan Doyle lent his central figure a logical mind and a rigorous attention to detail. which Ritchie attempts to copy (though again in ways which assume the audience is ignorant), I’d struggle to find the camp, flirtatious, one-line cracking Holmes anywhere in the literary canon.
Quite disappeared is the tall, gaunt, opiate addict, whose single-minded dedication to solving mystery is all that lifts him out of apathy. Gone is the often humourless pedant. In his place stands the clichéd larger than life figure it seems audiences require.
Also gone are the nuanced mysteries of tension-heightening intensity, traded for pacy archetypal Hollywood-style take-over-the-world nonsense.
On the way home, a friend queried why this was important, why we shouldn’t simply have a Sherlock Holmes written for the 21st Century. I have two answers. The lesser is that it seems somehow an insult to pinch someone else’s idea and then imagine that, leaving aside necessary adaptations of making a book into a film, you can do it better than authors who have been enormously popular for a century.
The greater is that I find it unspeakably conceited for members of the artistic elite of our century to implicitly declare that our era has nothing to learn from the past, thus we may butcher it as we please. The particular quirks and traits of Holmes and Watson in c19th century are interesting of themselves; this was London at the height of British imperial power, with a rich culture (both aristocratic and working class) that Conan Doyle evinced.
Guy Ritchie seems to be satisfied with the standard literary tropes of a corrupt and weak politician, a megalomaniacal genius to balance the ‘good’ hero, and the awkwardness of a brotherly love between two heterosexual males. The latter doesn’t fail to provoke a laugh at how ineptly it is depicted in the film.
Then there’s the question of the themes the film addresses.
If it had been my choice, and Ritchie had wanted to put his 12 year old’s faith/reason dichotomy front and centre, I’d have chosen the Study in Scarlet. The villains are still villainous whilst giving us every reason to believe they are human, instead of being Mussolini impersonators.
Indeed, who could forget the building tension and danger of the midnight escape from Salt Lake City. This could easily have been reworked to forego Conan Doyle’s misconceptions about the Mormons and to escape the literary tactic Conan Doyle adopted of splitting the story into two (apparently, in the beginning, unrelated) parts.
I forget myself however. It is not on the possible but on the actual I wish to dwell. The movie rounds off with an attempt to set up Sherlock Holmes II, by the introduction of Professor Moriarty. Guy Ritchie must have had dollar signs in his eyes, else how does one explain the crass Batman Begins-copying manner of the segue to Moriarty’s crimes?
In sums total, I thought the movie was garbage. A.O. Scott of the New York Times rounds off my feelings perfectly, in his own review:
“[I]ntelligence has never ranked high among either Mr. Ritchie’s interests or his attributes as a filmmaker. His primary desire … has always been to be cool: to make cool movies about cool guys with cool stuff. Yes, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ is kind of cool. But that’s not really a compliment…. There are worse things than loutish, laddish cool, and as a series of poses and stunts, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ is intermittently diverting.”