Off-Ramp for December 12, 2009

An Early Look at the New "Sherlock Holmes"

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Sidney Paget/The Strand

Sherlock Holmes, by Sidney Paget for The Strand.

Off-Ramp host John Rabe (left, with pipe) got an early look at the new Warner Brothers film, "Sherlock Holmes," and finds it reasonably Canonical.


I am something of a Sherlock Holmes geek. Not as deeply involved as some, but I’m probably in the top percentile of all US citizens. I come by it honestly and by pedigree, my father, WT Rabe, having been a very active Sherlockian from at least the 1940s to his death in 1992.

So I was interested and a little worried about the upcoming movie "Sherlock Holmes," directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. I was worried because Warner Brothers is hyping the movie thus:

In a dynamic new portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous characters, Sherlock Holmes sends Holmes and his stalwart partner Watson on their latest challenge. Revealing fighting skills as lethal as his legendary intellect, Holmes will battle as never before to bring down a new nemesis and unravel a deadly plot that could destroy the country.

Great, another "League of Extrordinary Gentlemen"-type film with a senseless plot, a bombastic score, lots of guys with little round tinted glasses, young actors with bad accents playing British dressup, with luxurious fabrics abounding.

I saw a preview of “Sherlock Holmes” last week on the Warner Brothers lot.

Yes, the score and the sound design are bombastic. Note to Guy Ritchie:

Just because you have Dolby-9.11-Superrumble-Extrabada** doesn’t mean you have to crank the mid- and high-end on every door that closes and every locket that snaps shut. You might be surprised to learn that people – even kids today – can hear okay with the volume at 6 instead of 11, and since we can see the door closing, we can develop our own emotions about it without the sound design telling us what to feel about it. And the camerawork is far too busy. Again, I’m pretty sure kids can enjoy a 30-second scene without 90 cuts, ten zooms, and three flashbacks.

But as I wrote to my friend Peter Blau, “Black Peter” in the Baker Street Irregulars, probably the most prominent Sherlockian group (he’s 33rd from the left in this picture):

Dear Peter,

Overall, I was relieved and pleasantly surprised.

Both Holmes and Watson are rather more physical than is commonly understood from the Canon, and they spend a lot more time fighting baddies. But, one could say Watson was a former soldier in Doyle’s stories, and Holmes was an expert in "baritsu" and something of a boxer, so their being active is not illogical. Irene Adler is not quite the Victorian lady of the Canon ... since she is an accomplished kickboxer and thief. That said, I'm rather tired of the Victorian ladies who are always fainting or screaming and letting themselves get tied to railroad tracks while the men have all the fun. No ladies scream in this movie.

Inspector Lestrade is very nicely played by Eddie Marsan (the driver’s ed teacher in "Happy-Go-Lucky" and the evil dude in "Hancock"), and he’s much less the bumbler than Doyle depicts him.

Speaking of bumblers, other movies have already corrected Nigel Bruce’s moronic Watson …


…but Jude Law’s Watson is very nearly Holmes’ equal in most areas, and better in some. This is good because, as other commentators have pointed out, it makes no sense that a man like Holmes would hang out with the idiot that Doyle (and Bruce) make of Watson. In the new movie, Holmes and Watson have a very nice intimate relationship, much more like brothers than master and apprentice, which I also find refreshing.

The plot also takes some nice jabs at the Da Vinci Code movies, and there’s a very funny joke about a certain modern device.

For all the action and loud music, there are many nice subtleties in plot, script, acting, and the design of the film. To name just one, Her Majesty does not appear.

The only true blunder/liberty I spotted is that in the movie, Watson is engaged to Mary Morstan before Holmes meets her, when of course, in Doyle, they got engaged after a case Holmes solved.

Using the Leonard Maltin BOMB-4 stars scale, I'd give it 3.5 stars.

- John


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