Monday, January 11, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

My excitement about Sherlock Holmes had taken a steep dive before I got around to seeing it. Holiday busyness kept me from getting there right away and I soon started hearing lackluster reports from friends that it was “pretty good” or “okay.” I started questioning whether I really would be okay with turning Holmes into an action hero. How much mystery and detecting would there be? I prepared myself for none at all. Turns out, there’s quite a bit. More than enough for this mystery fan anyway.

I love mystery stories, but I don’t read a ton of them and I’m not yet jaded on the genre. Because of that, I still like a lot of the standard tropes. I don’t need to be able to figure out the mystery myself, but I like the illusion that it’s possible for me to do that. In other words, the story needs to play fair with the clues – without pulling vital ones out of thin air at the end – but I don’t expect to be able to put them all together myself. I want the detective to know more than me and be at least three steps ahead. I want him to explain himself at the end so that I go, “Oh! So that’s what he was doing!” Sherlock Holmes is full of that kind of stuff.

And it’s full of Holmes’ showing off his deductive skills and generally being a socially abrasive, tactile thinker. He may use his fists more than people normally associate with the character, but he’s also thinking. All the time. It may not look like it, but he is and you eventually come to realize it. In other words, he felt like Holmes to me.

I wasn’t completely thrilled with the portrayal of Irene Adler though. Rachel McAdams is just fine, but the script relies more on characters’ talking about how impressive Irene’s intellect is rather than letting us see it in action. We learn that she’s one of the few people who’ve outwitted Holmes in the past (as Doyle readers already know), but we don’t get to watch her do it now. On the contrary, she’s brought into the story by another character precisely because this character knows she’ll be a distraction to Holmes since he’s attracted to her. That’s backwards from how it should be. Doyle’s Irene doesn’t beat Holmes because he’s attracted to her. Holmes is attracted to Irene because she’s able to beat him.

That said, I didn’t mind that she was working for someone else. Again, we have to take her word for it about why this person has power over her, but I think that’s okay in this case. Since we’re not supposed to know her employer’s identity right away, it’s not reasonable to expect that we’ll get to watch that person manipulate her. And I like her explanation anyway, which I won’t go into for fear of spoilers.

I also like the conflict between Holmes’ science and the villain’s magic. Without going into detail about it, I thought that this was handled very well, which is to say subtly and without any speeches about it from either side. That could easily have become annoying, but it never did.

Something else that was nicely handled was Holmes’ relationship with Watson. It gets challenging to find something new to say about these two, but placing the story in the period of time just before Watson gets married was very smart. The trailers for the film tended to focus on Watson’s irritation at Holmes – which is good, since that makes the film stand out from other versions – but don’t reveal the reason behind that irritation: that Watson’s feeling a bit remorseful about moving out of Baker Street and isn’t sure how to deal with it. It’s a touching situation that plays out in a funny way. I doubt it could work again in a sequel, but it was great for this movie.

I hope there is a sequel. With the possible exception of Irene (who could easily be improved in future movies), I liked these versions of the characters and want to see more of them. I disagree though with those who say that this film demands a sequel because of the plot threads that were intentionally left open. Though I’d love to see them tied up in a sequel, I’d argue that they already have been in Doyle’s stories. It’s not like the script has left us hanging with no way of letting us off outside of more movies. The way they’ve done it, I want more movies, but I also want to go back and revisit the originals.

Four out of five afoot games.
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