Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sherlock Holmes, Guy Ritchie (2009)

The new Sherlock Holmes film is an immensely interesting cultural Rorschach test. It's one of those ostentatiously "dumb" films about ostentatiously "smart" people which create a specific sort of cognitive dissonance that leads people to start peering into it and seeing things—ideas, intertextuality, meaning. (For the record, and as you'll shortly see, I endorse this kind of peering.)

This post, off Jeet Heer's excellent Sans Everything blog, argues that the film's Holmes is basically (and not very subtly) James Bond, but also (and I think more interestingly) immensely in debt to Alan Moore (both for From Hell and for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Heer also makes the case that the homoeroticism of the Holmes/Watson dialogue (and action) "might [make Holmes…] one of the first movies to tap into the slash fiction market."

Miriam Burstein also has a great post on the film up at her blog, The Little Professor, that evaluates the film against the source material (in not entirely uncomplimentary terms) and makes some intriguing comparisons between the subplot of Watson's impending marriage/Holmes's persistent attempts to derail it and the show House, M.D., an inspiration which makes a kind of great-circle logic. I don't watch House, but from what I've heard, his drug addiction, melancholy, unnervingly exact and unpredictable "genius," and his misanthropic superiority sound like they were snatched from Conan Doyle's sleuth quite shamelessly. The screenwriters of this version of Holmes are just completing the circle.

Two small wrinkles I'd like to add: a good deal of the score and some of the cinematographic technique for the film are extremely reminiscent of the (great) intro sequence to Dexter. The hurdy-gurdy sound—menacing and playful—is a natural fit for the world Ritchie wants to create, and the skittish, extremely tight shots of rapid movements are likewise an easy inspiration for the erstwhile director of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. It's not as if Dexter's intro sequence is the only source of this particular aesthetic, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it did float through someone on the creative team's mind.

The second wrinkle is that I haven't seen Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes mentioned in the conversations about the homoeroticism of the film, and I think it really belongs there. In Wilder's version, Watson was played as a straight man (in both senses) but Holmes himself had a more ambiguous sexual orientation, claiming (somewhat opportunely, but not obviously insincerely) to be gay early in the film, then demonstrating affections (which seemed to me to be asexual) for a woman at the end. And the relationship between Holmes and Watson was very obviously that of a couple, not just a partnership, even if Watson seemed unaware of the fact. At any rate, while I imagine slash fiction and (according to Burstein) the Jeremy Brett adaptations of the 1980s and 1990s have contributed to the homoerotics of the film, the Wilder version (which, I might add, is really very good) seems to me like it may stand at the back of all this.

More generally, Ritchie's adaptation is, rather like last year's Star Trek or, for that matter, like Iron Man, a surprisingly ginger attempt to please almost everyone (fans of the franchise, casual moviegoers; adults, children; men, women) almost all the time. Even more surprisingly, it works fairly well at doing that. One might quite easily compare it very favorably with the adaptation of Watchmen, which seemed fairly indifferent to an audience larger than the director himself and the fanboys he assumed were right behind him.

At any rate, one could do a lot worse than this; I'll gladly sign up for the sequel now.


Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Agreed. More wry humor than I expected; more wrinkles taken from the source (I really enjoyed the scene of Law breaking into Holmes' dank cave of a den); well enough directed but not distracting from the momentum of the plot. Totally enjoyable.

Adam Roberts said...

'Ginger' in what sense?

Andrew Seal said...

In the sense that no part of the film seemed aimed at something other than making sure no one had a bad time watching it. I felt that no one--neither the actors nor the director nor the writers--seemed intent on making a statement of any sort, or of turning one moment into the film's most memorable. Maybe others had a different experience, but I felt the film had a quite tentative feel, rather like a television pilot--existing for the purposes of establishing the characters' identities and relationships, the basic aesthetic the director wants to create, and the general tenor of the writing.

Not that I think this is a bad thing--though the way that it introduced Moriarty detracted a bit from the Blackwood plot. But as with Star Trek and Iron Man (and in contrast with, say, the Bryan Singer Superman film) the objective was very simply to launch a franchise. And all three, I think, were very good at doing that.