Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Guy Ritchie has needed a hit for years - and his slick revamping of deerstalker-wearing icon Sherlock Holmes will surely bring it. Yet don't be fooled by the MTV packaging - his so called 'reinvention' is more traditionally entertaining and old-fashioned than it appears.

Not that this is a bad thing; rebranding Arthur Conan Doyle's classic hero for the Youtube generation was after all met with much derision, and so it proves that the focus on the recognisable nuts and bolts of yore - spotting clues, references to Empire, London on the brink of change - is inevitably where the film derives the greatest pleasure. Impossible to reinvent the wheel? Try a much beloved literary creation.

So, after a snappy opening salvo, where Robert Downey Jr's rogeuish Holmes and Jude Law's more dapper Watson foil a sacrificial offering by Mark Strong's sinister Lord Blackwood, Ritchie stops trying to be a wise-ass and lets us go with the flow. When the deliciously evil Strong is reported to have risen from the grave, it doesn't take long for Holmes, stagnating after a long period with no work, to get the grey cells in gear. The re-emergence on the scene of his ex and equally devious crimebuster Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) complicates the agenda. And this is when our interest really takes hold.

For a supposedly modern take on a legend, Ritchie perhaps forgets that his notion is less than fresh, borrowing equally from 1987's Without a Clue (the notion that Watson supplies Holmes with intelligence) among others. It may be a spangly jumpsuit on the top but ultimately carries the feeling of a pipe and slippers, meaning what it gains in comfy familiarity (Holmes deducing info from seemingly arbitrary clues) it loses in the slickly packaged areas (Holmes and Watson's buddy movie rapport, for one) designed to pull in younger viewers.

Law's Watson, although likeable, therefore suffers from the tinkering, becoming an anonymous sidekick who could be slotted into any actioner, period or otherwise, while a miscast McAdams is far too perky when she should be conveying mystery. The main attraction of course is Downey's Holmes whose babbling, nervy energy is the perfect fit for a character whose pragmatism comes at the expense of others. Maintaining a perfect clipped accent, his is not the aristocratic Holmes of old but a down-at-heel one, a vessel through whom Ritchie can explore the grime covered streets of the capital.

This is the one area where Ritchie most successfully breaches the modern audience, capitalising on Downey's newly energised star status and lending a staid character some much needed attitude. And of course there's no-one better at the moment at projecting a view of London (albeit exaggerated) from the ground up: Phillipe Rousselot's washed-out photography, Hans Zimmer's inventive, jangly score and Sarah Greenwood's sets brilliantly draw us into a grubby world nonetheless palpably on the cusp of change.

And that, after all, is the essence of Doyle. For all Ritchie's whizz bang aplomb in staging slo-mo fights, explosions and the like, it's terrific to see his devotion to the core constraints, from a pulpy Gothic vein of horror weaving through to ruthless Blackwood's plans to consolidate a new Empire. Nice also, to have a major blockbuster that wraps up most, if not all, the story strands, in uniquely Holmesian fashion. Elementary, it seems, is best after all.

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