08 January 2010

Happy new year! + Nothing to write Holmes about?

Many happy returns, gentle readers, for the upcoming new decade. My prayers are that it will be more enlightened and sensible than the last.

And one of the things that I did since the new year has been to watch Guy Ritchie's newest film, an original take on the Holmes Mythos. I had been steeling myself for the worst, but the one Guy Ritchie movie I've had the privilege of seeing (Snatch.) was incredibly entertaining, with an ingenious caper plot, a dry and morbid humour and plenty of action sequences. Ritchie definitely knew how to bring the best acting he could out of Brad Pitt and Jason Statham in that work, even though the range of both actors is fairly limited.

The same cannot be said of Robert Downey Jr, whose range is quite wide, but whose performance as Sherlock Holmes I did not find wanting. Devastatingly brilliant yet lacking in social graces and patience for civility, Downey brings to Holmes a highly authentic intensity. Jude Law's Dr Watson was similarly authentic and convincing, and I enjoyed what they did with the dynamic between Holmes and Watson. The screenwriters (and Law, I suppose) interpret Watson as the primary humanising force on Holmes, kept around not so that Holmes can feel superior but so that Holmes can stay sane. (This was the interpretation Laurie R King brought to the Holmes Mythos, but 'Uncle John' was quickly replaced in her rendition by her character Mary Russell.) True enough, this does have some basis in the books, but what I did not particularly enjoy was the interpretation of Holmes as a brash street fighter / action hero.

(I can understand why they did it, though. I don't think critics like A O Scott give Ritchie due credit for his reading of Holmes - I think he saw in Holmes the self-destructive tendencies brought about by his cynicism and ennui, which Ritchie expresses in the boxing matches, but which were expressed in the novels through opiate abuse and lack of sleep. I can imagine that these would be difficult to express visually, and our culture being what it is the MPAA might have increased the rating due to the presence of drugs... but this is not an excuse, more a postulation of the screenwriters' thinking more than anything else.)

Rachel McAdams' femme fatale interpretation of Irene Adler was likewise entertaining, though she seemed at parts to be channelling a Helena Bonham Carter character. I'm a bit surprised and vexed at what they decided to do with her, making her a love interest for Holmes and a pawn of 'The Professor' rather than a worthy adversary in her own right - but again, it seems to be what a modern movie-going audience would expect.

I enjoyed what they did with Mark Strong's character, Lord Blackwood, and the story they put him at the centre of was remarkably well-done. I greatly enjoyed the steampunk-influenced aesthetic of the whole thing, two parts Verne and three parts Dickens. Though I appreciated the little steampunkish in-jokes (‘Radio-wave transmitters! That’s the future, Watson!’) it seemed like the movie couldn’t decide which side of the Crisis of Modernity it wanted to represent: siding with the triumphalists or the sceptics of Victorian industry and empire. (Sometimes, it did both simultaneously, as with the climactic scene atop the Tower Bridge.) Despite its stylistic indecision, the theme of the movie was nevertheless highly political, and had a lot to do with the political power of fear, and how easily it can be exploited by those with imperial ambitions. In that, it reminded me of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (and even V for Vendetta), but on the other side of the coin. This may be a bit of a stretch, and probably not what the Holmes writers intended, but I read Lord Blackwood as a Bruce Wayne gone terribly, terribly wrong. Rather than using his reputation, his knowledge of engineering and chemistry, his mastery of subterfuge and the power of fear against those who prey on the fearful (as the Batman of the Nolan re-boot does), he uses them all to manipulate and exploit his peers and the greater British populace. The difference is that he does not share Bruce Wayne's agony and moral ambiguity, already having chosen his way and willing to sacrifice anything and anyone in it (a missed opportunity on Ritchie's part, maybe?). Sherlock Holmes represents (however imperfectly) the powers of rational inquiry against his adversary, a larger-than-life agent of fear and superstition. In that, I think, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have taken pride in this interpretation.

Was it a faithful interpretation of the beloved character? Perhaps; I am not the best to judge, having at best a passing familiarity with the original Holmes canon. Did it do justice to him? I’d say it did, at least part-way – as might any interpretation which saves Holmes from becoming a perennial detective-fiction cliché. Was it enjoyable and entertaining? Certainly – it’s a movie I could very well watch again.

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