Stop the press. Guy Ritchie in New-Film-Not-Crap schocker. Cor Blimey, Guv-nor. Granted, it’s Batman Begins transplanted to 19th century London (plot to destabilise social fabric by chemically terrorising the establishment, reveal of master villain at conclusion to set up a sequel, preternaturally gifted detective whose attendant is more socially capable and reasonable than he is…), but it moves at a good pace and remains just about old-fashioned enough to entertain without “re-imagining” (that noxious neologism beloved of marketing copy-writers eager to play down the shafting they’ve just given to a famous name) the Holmes franchise.
The first thing that you’ll notice is the bitter-chocolate colour palette that makes everything a bit muddy. Publicity stills from the film cover this up, brightening the tone and colourising its murk. Initially, it felt like the dirtiest, ugliest-looking mainstream blockbuster I’d seen in years (I mean that in a good way), but it’s very effective in breaking many associations with other depictions of 19th-century London. Even if it doesn’t convey a strong historical sense through verisimilitude, it manages it through strangeness and the refusal to dress up like a BBC Dickens series or a Tim Burton fantasised tour of London streets. It’s all let down a little by the contractual obligation to end on a famous landmark (the partially built Tower Bridge, which is signposted at various points in the movie), but for the most part there’s an impressive continuity of visual tone.
The plot, alarmingly, concerns a secret religious sect planning to seize the reins of British power by supernatural means. It’s a bit much, when a more intimate bit of murder mystery would have done for starters, but it allows for an interesting clash between Holmes’ extreme, if eccentric rationalism and the spectre of superstitious terror against a backdrop of a newly industrialised England. I wish they’d explored that angle further, but you can’t have everything, right?
Robert Downey Jr was a wholly logical choice for Holmes, the fictional character more frequently portrayed onscreen than any other (IMDB lists more than 200 portrayals); he’s a distinctive, charismatic presence enough to distinguish himself fearlessly from all the other Holmeses, giving the detective an obsessive compulsive energy that serves as an explanation for his brilliance: he just can’t help trying to explain unresolved phenomena that pass before his sensorium, sorting them into stories that make sense. Arthur Conan Doyle’s books eulogise Holmes as an intellectual genius; this version reclaims his abilities as closer to other movie superpowers – useful, but accursed. An early scene shows him alone in a restaurant, struggling to still his twitching impulses to study the people around him, fighting his compulsion to examine the sounds and gestures that assail his eyes and ears. It’s a highly efficient way of getting to the nub of the character and describing his need to surround himself with people who “get” him, even if it compromises his integrity. Downey Jr seems to have been channeling his energy away from substance abuse and self-destruction and into these kinds of nervy, big-gesture acting jobs, so there was always a danger that he wouldn’t inhabit the role of Holmes, but rather straddle it like Slim Pickens on a nuke, kicking it to giddy-up. Thankfully, he pitches it just right, staying charmingly unhinged, believably driven, without tipping over into Jack Sparrow panto-damery (although they share a puzzling penchant for guyliner).
One of the few traces of Guy Ritchie’s previous form (the others being a number of mockney thugs and a slow-fast-slow-fast camera during action scenes) is the complete lack of interest in the agency of women. Poor Rachel McAdams, made up to look uncannily like Kylie Minogue on the promotional poster, and a bit more like Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven in the film. Her Irene Adler is meant to be a feisty, brilliant match for Holmes, her former lover, but she is used mainly to prove his heterosexuality in the face of an obvious dependency on Watson that might otherwise have spilled over adventurously into sexual ambiguity, and finally as a bargaining chip between enemies. Similarly, Kelly Reilly (who I’m told is a fabulous, acclaimed stage actress yet to find a role to adequately show off her talents) is used only as a pivot point for the Holmes/Watson relationship.
I can’t be the only one who was surprised to see Hans Zimmer’s name on the soundtrack album, because it’s mostly excellent folky jigs that keep step with the lo-tech approach to the story, but there are some excesses of rhythm and synths towards the end, in sympathy with the visuals’ inevitable slide into ropey CGI and vertiginously placed showdowns. That the film survives these compromises without too much stink is a sign of Ritchie’s grasp of the material – there is still way too much brawling for my taste, when the real pleasure of Holmes stories was always the baroque mental intricacy of his deductions, but at least it is built not on franchise frameworks of conventional plot developments but on the steady banter of two lead actors (I still can’t muster the enthusiasm to say a lot about Jude Law, but he’s perfectly solid here, unstretched and all the better for avoiding any grandstanding attempts to bring Watson to the fore or even give him a strong personality – he knows enough to let Holmes play the star attraction). It’s not a great film, more of a trial run for a possible series of more interesting sequels (acknowledged in the way they save the big reveal of the obvious star villain for the follow-up…), but could it be that Ritchie has deliberately spent the last decade knocking out worthless, parasitic movies in order to soften up audience expectations for his mainstream breakthrough? No. But it’s a thought. Certainly, it would be nice to think that his separation from Madonna freed his mind and allowed him to … Hey! We don’t do celebrity gossip here at Spectacular Attractions. Let’s just say that Guy Ritchie no longer being a stooge for the Kabbalah cult makes it newly OK for him to make a film in which a religious con artist and his secret sect attempts to take power in London and gets his ass kicked by a bit of rational inquiry.
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