Customer Review

134 of 151 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A surprisingly faithful adaptation, April 22, 2010
This review is from: Sherlock Holmes (DVD)
I've watched this version of Holmes a number of times now, and I must admit it surprises me in its subtlety and intelligence every time. As earlier reviews have noted, in the main this is actually a quite faithful representation of Holmes and Watson in light of the original stories (which I've read and, indeed, taught a number of times). At the same time, it's an excellent stylization of late Victorian England, and I think that's how it should be understood: at once a faithful interpretation that brings out all the pleasures of the original and a commentary on Victorian society as it transitioned into the twentieth century (which is, I'd hold, exactly what Doyle's stories were--a commentary on the modern). To quote from another well-known and frequently-adapted Victorian novel, it's "nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance."

The structure of the story itself could well be one of Doyle's original stories. It especially reminds me of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," in which an apparently supernatural series of events turns out to have a logical explanation. This is what surprised me the most when I saw the movie for the first time: that it engaged Doyle's narrative strategies in film form. In fact, this engagement is incredibly detailed. For instance, the scenes early in the movie where Irene Adler visits Holmes at home exploit Doyle's typical doubleness: at first we get a strung-together series of events whose chain of cause and effect are unexplained. Then, later, we get a recap in which Holmes explains that chain in detail, supposedly to Watson but really to the viewing audience. This particular set of scenes is, I think, one of the most admirable in the movie. It works as an exploration of narrative (which was always Doyle's point anyway--see the numerous stories in which Holmes chides Watson for transcribing their "adventures" as, exactly, adventures, as opposed to scientific processes of reasoning), and it works so brilliantly because of the intelligence behind it. Even the soundtrack (by Hans Zimmer of Gladiator fame) underscores the narrative structure here: the first time the events are portrayed, they're given a particular musical theme, and when they're re-portrayed by Holmes they're given a theme that's the musical inverse of the original. It's an example of all the various elements of film-making coming together in a subtle and fascinating way to demonstrate a point.

This attention to detail, not to mention stylishness, is present in the entire movie. It has nary a narrative hole (with, I think, one slight exception, which I won't detail so as not to produce any plot spoilers) and its overall structure is admirable taut. In fact, the movie is littered with strikingly subtle details that remain unexplained (e.g. the recurrence of "V.R.", an abbreviation of "Victoria Regina," or "Queen Victoria") by Holmes's narrative explications--the sheer quantity of detail in the movie points to the fascination with, precisely, detail that fascinates Holmes. (To cite just one more example: when Watson hands a newspaper to Holmes early in the movie, it features an ad for "Fry's Chocolates," which was the family business that gave Roger Fry, one of the members of the Bloomsbury Group whose most famous member is Virgina Woolf, his fortune.)

The movie does take liberties with its source material, signally with the representation of Irene Adler. But it acknowledges that it's doing so in a number of clever, apparently offhand details. At one point, Watson notes that Adler has outsmarted Holmes "twice," which indicates that the movie is adding on to the canon of Holmes stories--in Doyle's corpus, Adler appears exactly once (in "A Scandal in Bohemia"), so Guy Ritchie openly acknowledges the extrapolations he's made in this movie. In short, the movie notes explicitly that it's an adaptation as part of its adaptation.

All of this works brilliantly because the actors are brilliant: Robert Downey Jr. displays his usual genius (shown in another recent action movie), Jude Law presents the kind of Watson that other adaptations have eschewed (an intelligent ladies' man quite in tune with Doyle's character), and Rachel McAdams represents Adler as a clever and daunting adversary, which is quite in keeping with Doyle's character. McAdams may be especially worth noting, as Adler is one of the most significant as well as mysterious characters in the Holmes universe--her character is probably the biggest departure from the original in the movie, and McAdams carries it well. The cinematography is stylish and the soundtrack is excellent and really catchy. There are a couple of faults--some obvious day-for-night shooting and some clear CG--but I'm willing to indulge these because of the movie's overall excellence.

Basically, this movie is exactly what Hollywood used to produce and what it wishes it could achieve now: an intelligent, entertaining, and subtle movie that invites some effort on the viewer's part but also entertains enormously.

I'm looking forward to the sequel!
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 27, 2012 6:45:33 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Dec 21, 2012 4:43:41 AM PST
I enjoyed this film very much (see my review), but to claim that it's "surprisingly faithful" overlooks the fact that Holmes has been "humanized" to the point of near-unrecognizability (unrecongnisability, if you're British). And Irene Adler is hardly the brilliant manipulator from the canon.

Posted on Dec 21, 2012 3:35:52 AM PST
A review, almost as long as the original "speckled band". Robert Downey "Brilliant" ???
The Film is awful.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 3, 2013 8:39:49 PM PDT
L. Camuti says:
I agree. I've enjoyed Downey Jr in other films, mostly much earlier in his career. Being a fan of Basil Rathbone as Holmes, and having come to accept and admire Brett's Holmes, I thought this version sucked.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 3, 2013 8:43:58 PM PDT
L. Camuti says:
I concur on your point of near-unrecognizability. And furthermore it's Conan-Doyle as regards recognizability, not Doyle. Our American tele (sounds like you're British William) has a far more interesting take on the Holmes Watson dynamic in the new show Elementary.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 4, 2013 5:24:15 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 4, 2013 5:30:49 AM PDT
Sommerwerck is hardly a British name. (Note that my first name isn't Tony.) I watch little network television, and have never seen "Elementary".

If there's a "dynamic" in the Holmes-Watson relationship, I'm not sure what it is. Watson exists primarily as an intermediary, to make a cold and asocial character approachable and understandable.
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