Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is a fun, action-packed frolic through the gritty chaos of Victorian London, with a frantic pace and a fabulous sense of humour. Whether by design or by coincidence, by breaking away from the conventions of previous outings, Ritche has created the definitive on-screen version of the world’s most famous fictional detective.
That might be a lot of superlatives to put into a single paragraph, but a can’t stress how well this film is put together, and how much of a pleasure it is to watch. The credit for this goes in no small part to the actors on screen. On the surface, Robert Downey Jr. might seem like strange choice to play Sherlock Holmes, but he brings to it the right amount of eccentricity and, most importantly, vitality that no one has gotten right before. Holmes was never a boring prude in the books and here we finally see that addressed. Jude Law as Dr. John Watson is heroic and beautifully nuanced, another save from the bumbling idiot view of Watson made popular by previous screen versions, far removed from the character in the original stories. As in the books, Watson is here a dashing figure as he should be.
The supporting characters is also well fleshed out. Rachel McAdams brings a welcome brashness to her version of Irene Addler, and Kelly Reilly puts on a simmering formality for her role as Watson’s fiance. It’s a clever little injection of our stereotypical view of the Victorian Era, amidst the colourful street-view seen through the eyes of Holmes and Watson. Mark Strong plays Lord Blackwood, the villain of the piece, with adequate menace and mystery. And Eddie Marsan brings a fitting humanity to Inspector Lestrade. Lestrade, like Watson, is a character who has always been portrayed as either more stupid or more menacing in screen versions, and it’s nice to see him played more human here.
That really is the strength of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes; It’s more human and down-to-earth than the under-graduate Shakespearean fantasy that previous people have chosen to put on film. This film has gorgeous CG special effects, with old London re-created in great detail, but it recedes pleasingly into the background of the cacophony of human drama. And the rich visual atmosphere is raised to a crescendo by the wonderful background score. In popular entertainment, the Victorian era is often punctuated with stuffy operatic melodies and stilted classical compositions. But that was the Victorian England of a certain class of people, and Sherlock Holmes is more concerned with the streets than royal music halls. The music here is rousing and rustic, ribald and heart-felt. A cascade of squeaky fiddles, broken pianos, and various unrefined instruments that sound just a bit out of tune, provide a beautiful bouquet of what Victorian London must have felt like, not in the rarefied air at the tops of towers, but in the mud and muck of the bylanes. Hans Zimmer deserves a round of rowdy applause for this achievement.
Including costumes and art direction, Sherlock Holmes shines in too many minute and great ways to mention individually, but what makes the film beautiful is that it gets the big picture right. All involved have, for the first time, really immersed themselves in the original books and stories, spotted little nuances, and then exploited them to make this a very real and accurate portrayal of the spirit of Sherlock Holmes. Here Dr. Watson is not a bumbling idiot, Holmes is not a dry professor, and their relationship is not a cold and perfunctory exchange of pleasantries off a theatrical stage. These are real people with real feelings, with a real life in a real place.
The original Sherlock Holmes stories were printed in the Strand Magazine, and Conan Doyle wrote them as if they were an edited account of the detective’s adventures by Dr. Watson, as printed in that magazine for public consumption. This was the conceit that made the detective such a sensation during his time, and why many believed he was a real person. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes takes the hints in the original material and tries to recreate the reality behind them. It fills in the gaps remarkably well while keeping true to the times as they more likely were, rather than by our stilted estimate of bourgeois Victorian society.
Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant achievement of both comprehensive story-telling and of shameless entertainment with a heart, much like Conan Doyle’s original works. All I can say is, bring on the sequel!