...shining light on the media, one review at a time
From the promotional campaign for Sherlock Holmes, the Guy Ritchie interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, I didn’t know how much Holmes accuracy to expect, but felt at least assured that the film was going to be a light action-adventure, filled with humor and star Robert Downey Jr.’s usual wit. Though some of those elements proved to be present, they were barely apparent under a thick shroud of cult-driven darkness that spread through the story like a disease, making this movie far from enjoyable and anything but light.
As promised by the filmmakers, this Sherlock Holmes is indeed a reinvention of the characters that we’ve seen represented more tamely in previous film and television adaptations. Downey’s Holmes is rough in appearance and behavior, actively participating in the more sordid side of London culture. Tough, society-bucking and fist-fighting, this Holmes is still intellectually brilliant, but in all other respects is the epitome of the modern action hero. Director Guy Ritchie defends the radical differences in his movie’s Holmes and Watson as exploration of details that are present, but not dramatized, in Conan Doyle’s books.
Ritchie may have a case, but while the accuracy of the Holmes character is a debatable issue, the danger of the themes and content in this adaptation is not. Only a few moments into this film, my concern for the accuracy to Conan Doyle’s characters took a backseat to growing alarm over the movie’s disturbing content. The film opens with an exciting sequence in which Holmes athletically dashes, jumps, and fights his way into a villain’s lair. This particular villain, Lord Blackwood, is engaged in a sorcerer’s occupation of casting spells, torturing a young woman and driving her to murder herself in the presence of cloaked and darkly-clad witnesses.
Thus begins the film’s exploration into the dark arts. This is hardly the standard find body, solve murder mystery premise that usually anchors Holmes stories. Again, the filmmakers claim that this departure actually comes from Conan Doyle. However, Conan Doyle’s real-life interest in the occult is only barely present in the Sherlock Holmes stories that he wrote, but here is blown into astronomical proportions. Through the rest of the movie, the primary mystery that keeps Holmes and Watson busy, and in constant danger, is the capture of this supposed spiritual leader, who appears to be able to take control of men’s minds, curse people to instant death, and even rise from the dead.
[SPOILER WARNING] At the end of the film, Blackwood’s powers are revealed to be rooted in tricks and cunning, rather than actual spiritual powers. The damage, however, has already been irrevocably done, as the majority of the film is filled with murders, fear, incantations, and occult ceremonies. Such elements are undeniably the devil’s work, whether packaged in “legitimate” sorcery and witchcraft or not.
Perhaps the darkness in this content would not be so pervasive if it were offset by a redemptive story line and a hero to serve as a contrast of light. Unfortunately, no such saving feature is present. Instead, we have the modern interpretation of Holmes, whose only strong contrast to the criminals is that he does not commit murder.
Conan Doyle’s Holmes was never a paragon of virtue or touchstone of morality, but this new Holmes revels in fight-club style battles for money and/or pride, dishes out mercy and justice as he sees fit, barely blinks at murders he might have prevented with a little exertion, and even engages in a dark arts ritual. Holmes does the latter in the quest to predict Lord Blackwood’s next move (and admits that he loses himself in the darkness temporarily), but one wonders what happened to the brilliant mind of Sherlock Holmes that enables him to solve mysteries without needing to become like the criminal he’s hunting.
The supporting characters offer just as little hope for redeeming the cauldron of darkness that defines this film. Dr. Watson is the best among them, demonstrating loyalty and supportive friendship. His positive qualities, however, are negated by the presence of Irene Adler, a character who brings an abundance of traits designed to ensnare and morally confuse.
In the hands of Ritchie, Irene, who is only very loosely based on a character mentioned in one of Conan Doyle’s tales, becomes a modern action heroine, complete with the popular anti-hero quality of being a criminal herself. Like many action heroines before her, Irene does plenty of damage to both male and female viewers by wielding her sexuality like a weapon, and using a knife or her fists when that doesn’t suffice. In one scene, she purposefully, yet casually, disrobes with her naked back turned toward Holmes. While viewers are spared a full view, Holmes clearly sees all Irene intends before she goes behind a panel to dress in an almost equally immodest dress.
The only real relief in this film from a moralistic standpoint is the relatively few obscenities and profanities. The surprising restraint in the language department could have made the movie much more enjoyable had it also been applied to the overdose of violence, sensuality, and cult-based darkness.
In the end, Holmes may reveal the witchcraft to be a farce, but the darkness and modern desensitization to violence, murder, and sensuality that pervades this film furthers the devil’s purposes far better than an authentic sorcerer could ever dream. This is certainly not the Sherlock Holmes of the past, but I hope this film, and my memory of it, soon will be.
Check out these movies instead:
Pursuit to Algiers (Universal Pictures, 1945)
The Thin Man (MGM, 1934)