Sherlock Holmes (2009), A Stylised Interpretation of a Classic

Guy Ritchie is an odd director, the man who made British crime classics like Snatch, also helmed the live-action remake of Aladdin. I remember seeing both of his Sherlock Holmes films back in cinema when they came out, and I remember being a fan of both at the time, so when I saw that both had been added onto Netflix I felt it was time that I gave the films a rewatch. But unfortunately it seems, at least for this first film, I was looking back with rose-tinted glasses. 

Within this adaptation of Sherlock Holmes the setting is somehow both modern and Victorian in nature. While the setting is firmly set in 1890’s London, the film isn’t trying to emulate the period accurately but rather contextualising the historic time period through a modern, almost bohemian style interpretation of this era. The film opens with a frenetic chase down the cobble-stone streets of London as Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock attempts to stop Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood performing a human sacrifice. In this opening sequence, lots of elements of the film is set up: with its kinetic style, slow-motion action sequences (in the now-famous scenes where Sherlock plans out what attacks he’s going to do), and RDJ’s fast-talking, sardonic dialogue is presented. I must admit this whole opening sequence leading up to the arrest of Lord Blackwell is one of my favourites in the entire film, I think it’s this version of Sherlock at it’s finest. The candlelight crypt-like setting is lit gorgeously to give that cult-like feeling, and I have to give props to Philippe Rousselot for his cinematography in this scene, as it captures the eerie tension perfectly. Similarly Ritchie’s directorial style is at its best in this opening scene, with the smooth camera-movements and use of slow-motion adding to the scene (especially in the reveal of the hidden blade), in a way that matches the overall cool and sleek aesthetic that Ritchie is aiming for. 

One of the big elements of this film that attracted praise from critics is the dynamic between the two leading actors, Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law (who plays Watson). There is an undeniable chemistry between the two that allows them to bounce off of each other tremendously. I like how in this adaptation of the due, there’s an underlying tension, but ultimately admiration, that Watson feels towards Sherlock. I think that this change elevates Watson into less of a side-kick and levels the playing field between the two. This is also helped by affording Watson plenty of opportunities to save Sherlock, which once again helps even out the dynamic between the two. I think both of these roles were cast perfectly for the script, as Jude Law plays the straight man superbly, while Robert Downey Jr plays Sherlock with great wit and sardonic & sarcastic delivery. Between the bohemian costuming, and less traditional presentation and portrayal of the character, RDJ breathes new life into the role. I do think RDJ’s performance is hampered somewhat by the lacking script, the jokes don’t always land and at times I found the combination of the script and RDJ’s performance to be grating. The film also utilises the traditional idea of Irene Adler, this time played by Rachel McAdams, as a love interest for Sherlock, rather than what Doyle intended as a platonic admiration between the two. While Law and Downey have great chemistry, unfortunately the same can’t be said for McAdams and Downey, the romantic subplot feels forced, and unnatural between the two. McAdams on the whole, is decidedly lacklustre in her role for me, her line delivery isn’t great and the lack of chemistry with Downey means that all their scenes together are quite jarring in tone. But on the flip side, I thought that Mark Strong did a really good job as the antagonist, Lord Blackwood, he’s got the cool, charismatic air surrounding him which means that he’s an imposing force in all of his scenes. Delivering his lines with solid characterisation, his whole gimmick is shrouded in an interesting mystery that is only enhanced by Strong’s performance.

But while the performances are, on the whole, decent, the film drags in it’s script and story. The murders and initial mystery is interesting, but the film, and Ritchie’s, reliance on over-cgi’d action set-pieces drags the film from an interesting mystery into a schlocky action film. Specifically in the boat fight scene, and the final fight on the bridge, fill the screen with bland and ugly CGI that hasn’t aged well. I take issue with the overall design of Victorian London anyway, as for me it just looks so lifeless and dull and the colouring makes the whole landscape look like sludge, but specifically in these final scenes the cinematography and effects just clash to create these horrible visual compositions. It feels like the film is going for this industrial aesthetic, but for me it offers nothing to the viewer, and the heavy reliance on special effects makes it clear that the characters are standing in front of green screens, and the two don’t merge well together at all.

I was hoping going into this film that the memories I had of it when I was younger were going to come back in full force and I’d like it just as much now as I did then. But ultimately I think the film ends up feeling fairly mid, I didn’t not like it and it certainly wasn’t bad, but for me it ends up in the average-to-good range. Guy Ritchie’s frenetic style of directing certainly helps at times, the bare-knuckle fight, and the opening sequences are two great examples of this. But while stylistic, there’s plenty of times when the action doesn’t feel fully earned, the fight in the shipyard sequence is a great example of this, and so is the fighting in the climactic sequence at the end. The former of these examples also highlights how the heavy use of CGI really hampers this film, creating some bad-looking visual compositions. The film is a definition of a mixed bag, some really great moments and sequences, helped along by solid performances, but then the film will hit you with some atrocious dialogue or unfunny attempt at humour, or CGI clustered landscape. 



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