My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 73, Sherlock Holmes

73 – Sherlock Holmes:

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Elementary, my dear readers. Well actually, it’s interesting for me to open with that statement – as it doesn’t get said in this particular adaptation. And it’s actually not found anywhere in the original books. But I’m a big fan of irony. I’m not however much of a Sherlock Holmes fan. Well what I mean by that is I didn’t seem to get exposed to the books or films that much when I was growing up. The first one I read was The Hound of the Baskervilles when I was fifteen, and the only other stories I know are The Copper Beaches and The Final Problem. In terms of films, the Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles is the only version I saw (unless you count Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective). Of course, everyone ‘knows’ what to expect when you read/watch a Sherlock Holmes mystery: Sherlock is a super-competent genius who walks around wearing a deerstalker cap, smoking a pipe and saying “elementary, my dear Watson” – usually having to explain everything to his bumbling, dim-witted sidekick. But actually, three out of four of those qualities aren’t found anywhere in the original book. Holmes only wears such a hat in the countryside, never says that particular line, and his sidekick is actually a suave ladies’ man who can more than handle his own in a fight. As can Holmes too. So Guy Ritchie’s unique film adaptations actually have more in common with their source material than you’d think. But now I really can’t think of a line to end this paragraph with since I just busted the elementary one.

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For those that like these history lessons, Sherlock Holmes was a detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1800s. The novels were mostly a series of unconnected mysteries, and basically the Victorian version of CSI. Doyle eventually got sick of writing the mysteries and tried to kill Holmes off by sending him off a waterfall in The Final Problem – but none of his other books sold that well, so he was forced to write even more. With the new-fangled invention called motion pictures, Holmes and Watson naturally got to appear on the big screen. It’s from these films starring Basil Rathbone in the lead role that we get our iconic image of Holmes wearing the deerstalker cap and saying “elementary, my dear Watson” – as well as Watson being pigeonholed as a bumbling sidekick. They’re far from the only adaptations though; Sherlock Holmes started appearing in films almost as soon as they were invented – and there have been countless plays, TV shows, TV movies, comics, video games and even the odd cartoon or two. Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film version offers up a more ‘buddy cop’ movie theme, with a light-hearted tone and more action than usual – as it restores Doyle’s original vision of Holmes and Watson as competent fighters. The film also decides to play up Holmes and Watson’s friendship, playing their ‘like an old married couple’ habits for as much laughs as possible – and drawing in plenty of female viewers as a result. If you think that’s me being stereotypical, I assure you this is not the first modern franchise to play this card. Observe…

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Scrubs
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Supernatural.
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Merlin
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X-Men: First Class
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Thor

Lest you think this only works with one gender…

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Mean Girls
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Bring It On
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Charmed
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H2O: Just Add Water
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Total Divas

The movie opens in merry old London – well not so much merry, but definitely old. It’s the 1800s; the age of gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages in the streets. Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) is investigating something and takes out a guard. Before he does so, we get an internalised run-down of Holmes noticing his opponent’s weak points and how he’s going to attack. This is something the movie does a lot, and it’s a good way of visually showing how Holmes’s mind works. At this point in time, Robert Downey Jr’s second coming was in full swing. Iron Man had proved a rip-roaring success, and he followed it up with the award-winning Tropic Thunder. So this marked the third smash hit. He was surprised when they offered the part to him, reportedly asking if they were sure he was right. But he quickly saw the similarities between himself and Holmes, and immediately signed on. And I have to say, his English accent is pretty well done. I never expected him to pull it off.

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“Your surprise wounds me.”

Holmes is saved from an unknown attacker by his faithful partner-in-solving-crime John Watson. His actor Jude Law is – like Kate Hudson, Orlando Bloom, Catherine Zeta Jones, Colin Farrell and many more – one of the many who were given ‘future A-lister’ pushes in the early 2000s. Chris Rock jokingly called him “Tom Cruise light” at one Oscars ceremony. No disrespect to Mr Cruise, but he wasn’t the one that eleven-year-old me had a man-crush on and thought was the epitome of suave coolness. Yes, I even sided with him on that whole nanny thing. I was naïve. And I expressed the kind of excitement usually reserved for estranged parents and children reuniting when I saw he was in this film.

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“I usually inspire something else but I’ll take that.”

Holmes and Watson come across the mysterious Lord Blackwood. If the creepy Latin chanting or the drugged virgin sacrifice didn’t clue you in, the fact that he’s played by Mark Strong tells us he’s the villain. Creators decided to take some inspiration from the Victorian obsession with spiritualism and the occult to create Blackwood – and as a result, he’s a very interesting villain. Anyway, the protagonists are helped by the arrival of Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) and the rest of Scotland Yard – who cart Blackwood off. Unfortunately, the story does not turn into the Victorian equivalent of Prison Break. Alas.

But we move to more domestic matters now. You see, Watson is getting out of the sleuthing business. He’s going to be getting married and moving out of Baker Street. Given that Holmes has spent three months without a case and shut up in his dirty bug-infested lab/bedroom, he appears to be unhappy about it. But Watson persuades him to at least meet the young lady at dinner. Her name is Mary Morstan. In the original books, she was a client of theirs and that’s how she and Watson fell in love. But she’s still true to the books in that she works as a governess, and has pale skin and blonde hair…

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Why hello, Kelly Reilly. Fancy seeing you in two of my favourite films. Rest assured in that Mary has significantly less of the ‘head up your arse’ syndrome that Caroline Bingley has. She’s actually a lovely woman. But she makes the mistake of asking him to profile her in his own special way. He offends her and ends up eating dinner alone. Afterwards, Holmes decides to swing by the Victorian London version of Fight Club and blow off some steam. The scene showcases both Holmes’s fighting prowess and how his keen eye for detail lends to that. It also gets him shirtless for that aforementioned female demographic.

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In the prison cells, Lord Blackwood has apparently spooked the rest of the prisoners by putting a guard under some kind of spell. When Holmes is called in to see him, another guard says they had to move the nearby prisoners to prevent a riot. Blackwood claims he will cause three more deaths, in addition to the five he’s already pulled off. He’s then hung, saying “death is only the beginning”, and presumed dead by Watson. Holmes meanwhile gets other issues in the form of…

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Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) – a one-book character in the original cycle of novels. But since she’s one of the only prominent women in the stories, she’s quite easy to bump up to the love interest. The film implies they had at least an affair after the events of A Scandal in Bohemia – but the aggressive way Holmes goes about slamming her picture down suggests it didn’t end too happily. Irene offers Holmes a case, but he refuses. Irene’s next scene has her talking to a man in shadow, and he appears to be her employer. And Holmes’s next scene tells us he followed her and witnessed this. The idea that someone could scare Irene Adler worries Holmes, because well…

Constable Clarkey from Scotland Yard bursts in and reveals that Blackwood has apparently risen from the dead. They find the tomb broken from the inside and an eyewitness who claims to have seen Blackwood walking around earlier. The coffin also has another body stuffed into it. The pocket watch on the body gives Holmes a lead, and Watson tags along against his better judgement. After a hilarious little bit where a gypsy fortune teller gets paid off by Holmes to dissuade Watson from getting married, they come to some makeshift lab. Holmes smells Irene’s perfume, guessing she was here at some point. The rest of the clues tell them that their dead man was actually working with Blackwood. And they’ve arrived just five minutes before the men who were supposed to burn the place down and erase all evidence. They’ve brought some help to deal with Holmes and Watson.

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Dredger (Robert Maillet) is a tough nut to crack, and the ensuing fight scene leads them to a shipyard. The resulting chaos dislodges a ship that isn’t finished into the sea, which Holmes tries to blame on Watson. They end up in the slammer for criminal damages. They also end up bickering like an old married couple, where Watson makes it clear that he’s onto Holmes’s attempts to break up his engagement – and he’ll not stand for it. As if to give Holmes further karma, Mary bails Watson out but not him. He passes the time telling jokes to the other prisoners before Lestrade bails him out. Holmes shows his gratitude in an odd way.

Lestrade: “You know, in another life you’d make an excellent criminal.”

Holmes: “Yes, and you an excellent policeman.”

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But news of Blackwood’s apparent resurrection has reached the papers, so Holmes better get a move on. He’s blindfolded and taken to a secret location. They needn’t have bothered because Holmes guesses at once that he’s been brought to the headquarters of the Temple of the Four Orders – basically a fraternity dedicated to practising black magic and pulling strings with politics. He’s introduced to noted members Lord Chief Justice Sir Thomas Rotheram (James Fox), US Ambassador Standish (William Hope) and Home Secretary Lord Coward (Hans Matheson). Holmes also guesses that Blackwood was – or perhaps is – actually Sir Thomas’s illegitimate son. They believe he has been resurrected too, and lend Holmes a book of spells to stop him.

Holmes takes a trip to the Grand Hotel, where Irene Adler is staying. With the man she asked him to find dead, he’s now suspected that she could be in danger too as a possible loose end that needs tying up. He also slyly reveals that he knows her employer is a professor – from the chalk that was on his jacket. He doesn’t get to say too more because he makes the mistake of drinking wine that Irene serves – and promptly passes out. We’re next shown none other than Sir Thomas inexplicably dying in his bathtub, with Lord Blackwood looking on! Next morning, a maid enters Irene’s room and finds Holmes chained to the bed. He’s also naked – because what woman would be confronted by an unconscious Robert Downey Jr and not want to see his iron man?

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Holmes gets found by Scotland Yard and taken to Sir Thomas’s death site. Despite the police making the dim-witted move of draining the bathwater, Holmes still discovers something important: a secret room full of occult relics. We now see the secret society who uses these occult relics. Lord Blackwood reveals himself to the society, and also reveals his master plan: to conquer America while they’re still reeling from the Civil War. The ambassador Standish objects and tries to shoot Blackwood – and ends up set on fire!

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While Watson is clearing out his stuff, Holmes does some investigating on the body of one of the men who were supposed to burn all the evidence. He figures out that the man must have been a factory worker at a slaughter house near the river. Watson reluctantly tags along – and they’re greeted by Blackwood’s voice booming ominously about something dangerous happening tomorrow. But they can’t dwell on it too much because he’s got Irene in an elaborate death trap.

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In a scene that’s still quite tense to watch, Holmes and Watson first save Irene from being blasted by a flamethrower and then being cut in half by a buzz saw. Watson unfortunately goes over a trip wire that sets off explosives. He ends up in hospital, where Mary tells Holmes she doesn’t blame him. Holmes decides to do the Mushroom Samba to allow himself to figure everything out.

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Or he just wanted to say hi to these guys.

When he wakes up, both Irene and Watson are there. He explains that he was actually re-enacting the ritual they interrupted at the start of the movie. The key to figuring out Blackwood’s plan is the symbol of the Temple of the Four Orders: the sphinx. It comprises of four creatures – the man, the ox, the eagle and the lion. Each of them corresponds with one of the deaths. Likewise, the five murdered girls at various points in the city form a pentacle, within which is a cross that marks each of the post-hanging deaths.

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It’s not mentioned in the film, but each of the deaths corresponds to one of the classical elements. Most occult-related stuff will incorporate the elements in one way, so it makes sense that Blackwood’s murders would do the same. As follows:

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Earth.
water
Water
fire
Fire

This leaves both Air and the Lion to go – and they guess it will happen at Parliament. But I should have mentioned that Holmes is now a wanted man – and Lestrade turns up to arrest him. He brings him before Lord Coward – apparently now as a member of the order. Between the two of them, Holmes and Coward fill us in on the rest of the evil plan. The order intends to murder several men in Parliament today, and they plan to do so through something in the sewers. Holmes somehow breaks out of the handcuffs and jumps out the window – to a nearby barge where Watson and Irene are waiting. Apparently Lestrade was the one who slipped Holmes the key to the cuffs.

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“You might say I’d make an excellent criminal too.”

In the sewers, they find a machine programmed to release a toxic gas into Parliament at the twelfth chime of noon. Blackwood reveals himself to the men there, while the others are trying to disarm the machine below. Their French friend Dredger shows up for round two, and Holmes and Watson take care of that while Irene works on the machine. She successfully disconnects a piece of it – but then runs off with it!

Holmes chases her to the not-yet-finished Tower Bridge. Just as she’s about to tell him everything, Blackwood ambushes them. After Holmes defeats him, he reveals that he’s figured out everything. Blackwood never really died, and the ‘supernatural’ deaths were only “conjuring tricks” – all corresponding to the various chemicals and instruments found in the house those two idiots were supposed to burn down. Blackwood was intending to manipulate even his own followers into thinking he had dark powers, so he could take over the world.

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A falling part of the bridge then causes Blackwood to be hanged properly off the chains. Irene then confesses the name of her employer: Professor Moriarty. The man only appeared in the intended finale The Final Problem, as an evil man equally brilliant and devious as Holmes. He actually didn’t have much characterisation beyond that, but numerous adaptations have fleshed him out. So the mention of his name leaves this open for a sequel.

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The denouement takes place at Baker Street. After Mary takes note of Watson’s collection of notes about his various exploits, they find Holmes trying to figure out how Blackwood faked the hanging. But Constable Clarkey bursts in with the news that a policeman has been murdered and a vital piece of Blackwood’s machine is missing. Looks like Prof Moriarty is preparing for a sequel.

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So around the late 2000s, we saw a collective boom in Sherlock Holmes popularity. Besides these movies, there were two hit TV shows to modernize the story – BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary. It seems that there’s always a market for these type of stories – which explains the umpteen CSI spin-offs. Audiences just love to sit back and watch the experts put all the clues together to solve a mystery. And of course no one does it better than Holmes and Watson. With a few beloved TV series and even more beloved Basil Rathbone films to live up to, this new version had tricky ground to walk on. But it seems to have succeeded in introducing a whole new generation of fans to the famous detective. The film didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but it was wickedly entertaining. Guy Ritchie blended the sleuthing with some creative action sequences – all held together by stellar performances from just about everyone. I can’t really say much more about the film other than that it was just very fun. And when a film can entertain you thoroughly from start to end, that’s really all you need to say.

Oh all right, I’ll say it.

Elementary, my dear grades.

*Story? A well-crafted mystery that unfolds nicely, with some fun action set pieces punctuating it. B

*Characters? The dynamic of Holmes, Watson and later Irene worked exceptionally well. It’s a huge shame that the sequel dropped Irene almost completely. Lord Blackwood was a fun villain, if a little underdeveloped. B

*Performances? Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes. Most people raised eyebrows when it was announced, and most then went “oh, that’s why” when they saw the movie. MVP of the movie has to go to Jude Law for me – and that is not me being biased at all. Well, maybe just a little. Eddie Marsan, William Houston and Kelly Reilly were very fun in their supporting roles. A

*Visuals? I really loved the gritty, grimy look of Ritchie’s Victorian London. The style complemented the movie’s tone in a surprisingly fitting way. A

*Special Effects? Action scenes were very creative, though some of the CGI did look a bit dodgy. B-

*Anything Else? The way Ritchie visually represented Holmes registering all the clues was a good decision to make. The humour also added to the story without making it too slapsticky. A

I’ve been dreaming of a true love’s kiss…well I’ve been dreaming of the Disney parody Enchanted up next.

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