5 January 2010: Sherlock Holmes review

Sherlock Holmes
Jeremy Brett as the great detective

We found Sherlock Holmes to be entertaining, if not especially cerebral. Guy Ritchie did a better job of adapting Arthur Conan Doyle’s seminal mysteries than some critics had feared, using dialogue and descriptions recognizable to Holmes enthusiasts. On the other hand, the movie has the director’s trademark slow-motion fisticuffs and explosions, modern quips, and focus on the seamy side of Great Britain.

Robert Downey Jr. is as much a caricature of Oscar Wilde or other Victorian bohemians as he is the great detective. As with Iron Man, he brings appropriate charisma, nervous energy, and intelligence to the role. Jude Law is good as Dr. Watson, giving Holmes’ sidekick a more youthful energy and making him more of a true partner than he has often been portrayed.

The pretty Rachel McAdams plays Irene Adler in the largest deviation from “canon” as a recurring love interest of Sherlock Holmes, and genre veteran Mark Strong plays Lord Blackwood, the key to a nefarious plot threatening London, and by extension, civilization itself.

The story is similar to that of Young Sherlock Holmes and other pastiches, and even though I’m a big fan of the original books, I can appreciate well-done variations on the classic characters. The script leaves an obvious opening for a sequel.

I’ve argued on Facebook and elsewhere that Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is a decent adaptation of the literary sleuth but a better steampunk movie. I plan to blog more about this subgenre of speculative fiction, which has been growing in popularity and has had relatively few successes in film or on television.

Sherlock Holmes is an excellent example of steampunk, including social commentary implied in the Dickensian images of a gritty (and class-stratified) industrial metropolis, a few clockwork and steam-powered gadgets, opulent costumes, playful anachronisms, and a lively soundtrack inspired by Gypsy music.

Although my favorite version of Sherlock Holmes so far is the early 1980s BBC/PBS television series starring Jeremy Brett, I enjoyed the movie, which I’d rate an 8.5 out of 10 or a B+. It’s rated PG-13 for violence and some sexuality. Let’s hope that more movies this coming year are equally fun!