Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

The Adventure of the Extraordinary Adaptation

Penned upon the 16th of January, 2010

I was quite prepared not to enjoy the new Sherlock Holmes film (directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law.) The previews seemed to promise thrills, sex appeal and edgy modern costumes – none qualities I really look for in a Holmes story. I certainly wasn’t expecting a faithful treatment of Conan Doyle’s characters. Well, you can have me down as an ass, but those previews lied. Glamour and violence it has, to be sure, but Sherlock Holmes is a fair interpretation of the Holmes universe, attentive to period detail, fun to watch, and, yes, very pretty to boot. With some very pretty boots on display, too.

The central story – concerning a disgraced nobleman and occultist who pledges to rise from the grave after his execution and perform an unholy rite to rule the world – is entirely outlandish, though no moreso than the popular recent crossover adventures with the Lovecraft mythos and the Arsène Lupin stories. (I always thought Lupin rather a thug, myself, but that’s a story for another time…) The Great Detective himself is quite unalike the detached, otherworldly Jeremy Brett – Downey’s Holmes is far more immediate, more physical. Jude Law’s Watson is superb – I quite suspended my disbelief, in fact. (Law, incidentally, previously appeared opposite Edward Hardwicke’s Watson as Joe Barnes as Lady Beatrice Falder. In a lacy dress.)

Many – including The Age’s Ms Bunbury – have raised eyebrows at the film’s lengthy action sequences. Certainly, much of Holmes’ detective work took place in the intellectual realm, and some of his greatest successes were achieved almost entirely within his sitting-room. However, Holmes is still an able man of action. His greatest foes were all defeated by martial means: Professor Moriarty, killed in a struggle by use of bartitsu, the Japanese system of wrestling; Colonel Sebastian Moran and John Clay, both physically subdued after being caught in clever traps. He demonstrated his great physical strength against Dr Grimesby Roylott and in the case of Black Peter, and his skill at bare-knuckle boxing (featured in the film) against the oafish “Roaring Jack” Woodley and any number of further minor villains. He displays, in short, the sound mind in the sound body.

This is not to say that Holmes never challenges the canon. Certain events appear out of order – the affair of the Scandal in Bohemia originally took place after Watson’s marriage, for example – but the original chronology is so unclear that I do not consider this at all a serious complaint. Ms Morstan’s introduction differs considerably from that recorded in The Sign of the Four; originally, she was introduced to Watson through consulting Holmes, not introduced to Holmes through becoming engaged to Watson. She does not deny Holmes’ deduction that her jewellery was borrowed from her employer, also, when – were the canon in effect – surely she would possess the jewels sent to her by Thaddeus Sholto? Where the facts conflict, however, the characters align – the excellent Kelly Reilly plays the best Mary Morstan I have ever seen or heard.

I do wonder about Downey’s Holmes – would Holmes be likely to abuse alcohol, for instance? His drug use provides the stimulation his mind requires in the absence of mysteries to solve; surely alcohol would have rather the opposite effect. Similarly, I am intrigued that Irene Adler has so cleanly divorced herself of Mr Godfrey Norton of the Inner Temple… but then, I suppose she did the same to Wilhelm. Speaking of, Holmes mentions that she disrupted the marriage of a Hapsburg and a Romanov – might this be the King of Bohemia and the Princess of Scandinavia? If so, I have no doubt that His Majesty brought it on himself – he never was on her level, and doubtless could not leave well enough alone.

So, though I was expecting to, I can’t really fault the film for its attention to details. If a proto-fascist conspiracy to seize power were attempted by certain well-placed members of the British government, drawing on the resources of an (authentically Egyptianate) mystical society and on radically advanced physics and chemistry sourced through a network of underground scientists… then Sherlock Holmes is exactly how Holmes would have foiled it. The grand picture is fantastical, but there is no element which does not have a relative somewhere in Conan Doyle’s work: I count no fewer than six stories involving ingenious deathtraps, three plots against the government, and three crimes by apparently supernatural means – all of which involved the use of rare poisons or chemicals.

Judged on its own merits, aside from its source material, Holmes is as decent a superhero film as any. By the climax, I felt the pacing had worn as bare as Ms Adler (she’s wearing a shirt and vest but no coat or tie, if you’re wondering. All the basics were there, but those important finishing touches were missing.) Still, hardly enough to bury it – it’s fun and there are a lot of clever touches. It’s definitely a film intended for fans of the books – they, and those who enjoy Ritchie’s usual fare of adorably English dust-ups. Come to think of it, I’d describe it as the English Batman Begins – what chance that the sequel may be a The Dark Knight, I wonder? Or of an Arkham Asylum, perhaps… hah, that’d be a sight to see.

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Commentary upon “The Adventure of the Extraordinary Adaptation”

  1. Melanthios was heard to remark,

    Upon the 19th of January, 2010 at 4:37 pm,

    You forget to mention that Ms Adler is obviously an Aesthete, which is made obvious by her bright pink dress in the beginning, and her bright colours throughout. Hence the pants make sense. Also she’s a grifter. She’s so way more badass than she was in the books, for srs. And I am the kind of dude who is always complaining about heroines in historical movies.

    Damn I love this movie. And you’re so right! It IS batman. And I mean, that’s totally appropriate, because Batman was supposed to be the ‘modern’ Holmes. World’s Greatest Detective and all.

  2. Sir Frederick Chook was heard to remark,

    Upon the 20th of January, 2010 at 12:50 am,

    The violet silk number? D’you know, I didn’t think of it like that! I was treating Ms Sha to excited little whispers all throughout – “There’s Watson’s bulldog pup!” and whatnot – and whenever Irene appeared in trousers, I would sagely declare “Male costume is nothing new to her.” To be fair, Sha returned the favour – noticing that the initial pan across Baker St is lifted from the Granada series opener, for instance.

    Have you seen the Brett adaptation of A Scandal in Bohemia? It has lots of brilliant little inserts of the Crown Prince and Irene’s fun together – her target-shooting, her jump-riding, her dressing up in white tie and tails and flirting with the cabaret girls. She is an adventuress, no less.

    (I wonder what they’ll do with Moriarty – one of my collections was prefaced with an editorial arguing that Moriarty was, really, a stop-gap villain – invented on the spot to give Holmes a big end to the series. Colonel Moran was the better character – the twisted prodigy of the British Empire, all dignified cruelty. Meaning, adapters have license to improve on Moriarty – he needs it – but they must preserve his dragon’s ferocity.)

    In any case… ah! I’m so glad you enjoyed it too! A superhero treatment is only fitting for Holmes, I think, considering his immense contribution to the genre. Speaking of, it’s only relatively recently I actually got to see Batman Begins – I can see why Cillian Murphy has the fans he has. That disarming fey persona… good work, Mr Murphy, I say.

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