In the Shadow of Rathbone: Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes (2009)

holmes-basil-rathboneWhen Sherlock Holmes (2009) originally hit the big screen, it ruffled feathers for putting a very action-packed spin on the cerebral, methodical detective. It was simply too much re-imagining for some, especially for Holmes purists.

Perhaps some of those feathers have settled. In this outing, Holmes must debunk a series of supernatural illusions to unravel a complex murder plot, just as he does in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In fact, when considered in light of this very popular novel, the film’s virtues become a bit easier to notice.

downey-as-holmesShining in Sherlock’s Shadow

Having Robert Downey Jr. play Sherlock Holmes was a gamble. Once upon a time, movie-goers might have seen Basil Rathbone and thought oh look, there’s Sherlock Holmes regardless of the role the actor was playing. Casting Downey — who bares almost no resemblance to the tall, lean figure commonly associated with Holmes — risked prompting viewers to think oh look, it’s Robert Downey Jr. instead of seeing Sherlock Holmes. In other words, the actor’s presence might have outshone the character’s.

And yet, I didn’t find that to be the case. This is probably due to director Guy Ritchie’s success at placing the actor into a remarkably cohesive and detailed, gritty yet romanticized Victorian London as well as Downey’s talent at distinguishing one role from previous ones. (I will say, though, once or twice, I was pleasantly reminded of the actor’s performance as Charlie Chaplin. This is an especially lithe and otherwise physical Holmes.)

To be sure, casting an actor that at first might seem ill-suited to the role only helps the film reach its goal of offering a new Sherlock Holmes. He’s just as cerebral, wry, and eccentric as the detective with whom we’re familiar — maybe, a bit more so — but he’s also more bohemian, impulsive, rough-and-tumble, and downright nutty. It’s Holmes turned up to 11, and Downey fits this fresh interpretation of the great detective quite well.

law-as-watsonWatching Watson

And casting Jude Law as Dr. Watson was equally risky. Too handsome? Too big a star to keep the focus on Holmes? Again, it seems to work. Law is Downey’s equal in terms of being able to jump from comedy to pathos to action to dry exposition. The two have a good chemistry, and while I won’t say that either Holmes or Watson entirely eclipsed my notice of the actor playing him, there’s a nice balance between performance and character in both cases. My point here might become clearer by imagining, oh, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the roles. There, I strongly suspect the performances or the actors themselves would very much distract from the characters. (Now that it’s come to mind, though, I really would like to see Smith and Jones play Holmes and Watson!)

Watson here is given his usual counter-balancing duties. He is the check on Holmes’s eccentricities, the detective’s guide through the drab world of normalcy. Stated plainly, he is Holmes’s friend and doctor, which is very familiar. Less so, this Watson has a gambling addiction that helps us understand why Watson continually returns to Holmes — he’s addicted to the danger of crime-fighting — even though the doctor is in the process of leaving 221B to marry Mary Morstan. (I’ll say more about Watson’s gambling below.) This character insight becomes another way that Ritchie and screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg reveal that this film is doing something with these characters rarely seen in Holmes movies. Something a bit more complex, if not true-to-life.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

I mention above that, when compared to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, this movie’s finer points might become more easily noticed. Both stories place Holmes in the role of a debunking occult detective. At the risk of committing blasphemy, I’d say the more intriguing mystery concerns the film’s villain, Lord Blackwood. He aims far higher than the villain in Doyle’s novel, after all, and Blackwood’s evil ambition — to reclaim the U.S. as British — reflects England’s colonial fever during the Victorian period. By the way, I can name the film’s bad guy because this is much more a howdunit and a whydunit than a whodunit.

The novel’s villain and Blackwood also share the desire to achieve their ends through the manipulation of fear. They both prey on others by substantiating the nagging suspicion that the supernatural really does intrude upon our physical world — and, often, in a frightfully unfriendly way. Essentially, both villains are terrorists. Both stories illustrate the cost of being too quick to believe in things supernatural.

Along with these impressive thematic levels, the mystery in Sherlock Holmes is complex enough to feel like a proper Holmesian tale. If it feels a bit too far-fetched, I again remind you of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

watson-explodes
Explosions, fight scenes, even high dives into the Thames make Sherlock Holmes more visually active than other films about the great detective — but it’s also strong on character and mystery.

On the negative side, there’s the persistent problem of what to do with women in a Holmes story. Mary Morstan doesn’t do much. Mrs. Hudson gets a few laughs. Irene Adler gets more attention, and she’s smart and capable. But she’s still a criminal. In fact, she’s working for a certain Professor who remains in the dark. For now.

There’s an awful lot of fighting, too. It’s interestingly presented in that Holmes is a decidedly logical fighter, and Holmes’s acumen in the boxing ring is true to canon. In Doyle’s The Sign of Four, we read this: “’Not Mr. Sherlock Holmes!’ roared the prize-fighter. ‘God’s truth! how could I have mistook you? If instead o’ standin’ there so quiet you had just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw , I’d ha’ known you without a question. Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have!'” In other words, Holmes could have been a good prize-fighter.

Similarly, Watson’s gambling problem might seem like a device to make the characters much more rough-edged than Doyle ever did. However, in “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place,” Holmes asks his friend if he knows about horse-racing. Watson replies, “I ought to. I pay for it with about half my wound pension.” Ritchie and the screenwriters might be accused of exaggerating Doyle, but to suggest that they entirely abandon the author is unfair.

But this brings us back to the film’s positives. There’s one scene in which Holmes performs his Profile a Person from Tiny, Physical Clues act. One very crucial mistake, however, leads to a glass of wine thrown in the genius’s smug face. Holmes is left to have dinner out all alone, and the facial expressions of Downey nicely capture a man who simply hasn’t matured enough to know how to function in polite society. In the next scene, he’s in a boxing match. He’s taking a beating for his earlier bad behavior, be it knowingly or subconsciously. There’s a depth to characterization here that seldom appears in other Holmes movies, and the fact that this deeper characterization is balanced with a sophisticated mystery and a good deal of fun makes Sherlock Holmes one of the best cinematic treatments of the great detective available.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

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