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“Sherlock Holmes,” directed by Guy Ritchie, who also directed the brilliant “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) and “Snatch” (2000), as well as the decidedly less-than-brilliant “Swept Away, begins with the crime.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 19th-century upper class English detective (“Iron Man” Robert Downey Jr.), his friend John Watson (Jude Law), and shortly after – as is his wont – Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan of “Hancock,” “The Illusionist” and “Gangs of New York”) – arrive in time to prevent a heinous and bizarre murder.
Despite the apprehension of the criminal (Mark Strong as a creepy and powerful Lord Blackwood), the crime is only the beginning of the mystery that propels the story.
Irene Adler (“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” – “A Scandal in Bohemia”) is played almost convincingly by Rachel McAdams (“Wedding Crashers,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife”). Kelly Reilly (“Pride and Prejudice,” 2005) is just right, though in a much smaller role, as Dr. Watson’s fiancée, Mary.
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are old friends who have shared “rooms” for some time. Dr. Watson, a war veteran and a physician, is moving to a new residence, both to expand his practice and because he hopes soon to marry. Sherlock Holmes is not reconciled to the separation. He relies on his friend in many ways – social as well as in his detective work. He is more than a little poorly socialized, despite his uncanny ability to disguise himself and fit in, temporarily, with people of any class, any walk of life. When Dr. Watson finally persuades his friend to meet the woman he hopes to marry, Sherlock Holmes is extremely offensive to her. Dr. Watson and Mary leave the restaurant, leaving Sherlock Holmes to dine by himself at a large table set for three. The very next scene is
a lower-class, no-holds-barred fighting ring where the detective is one of the fighters. The other is a huge man in the process of beating him to a pulp. Sherlock Holmes leaves upright, but well-punished for the pain he has caused his friend.
Robert Downey Jr., as Sherlock Holmes, is not Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes (12 films beginning in 1939), nor is he Jeremy Brett, John Barrymore, Peter Cushing, Frank Langella, Rupert Everett, Peter Cook, or the myriad others who have played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 19th-century English private detective. Nor is Jude Law his predecessors’ Dr. Watson.
But this Holmes-Watson duo is on a much more even level in this film. Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes is earthier than previous incarnations. He is more flawed than arrogant. While he is brilliant, he needs help to stay out of trouble. Mr. Law’s Dr. Watson is handsome, brave, and smarter than his predecessors (the other extreme, Nigel Bruce, a rather bumbling Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone’s suave detective). This Dr. Watson has a flaw of his own, a gambling problem.
The film is more about the relationships between the characters than it is about the mystery – how Lord Blackwood, an embodiment of evil for most Londoners and a charismatic leader of the power elite – has apparently been resurrected after having been hanged and declared dead by Dr. Watson. The two crime-fighters solve the mystery in time to prevent a parliamentary disaster, but Mr. Ritchie leaves enough loose ends – the shadowy appearance of Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s arch-nemesis, for example – to tease the audience into at least one sequel.
(People who are familiar with television’s “House, M.D.” (which is, according to fan sites, based loosely on Sherlock Holmes – Ho(l)mes, House; Watson, Wilson; Holmes and Watson live at 221b Baker St., House’s address was 221b as well) will see some parallels.)
The musical score is great, as one would expect from Hans Zimmer, composer for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Gladiator,” “Lion King,” “Dark Knight.” An exception is a disturbing similarity of an occasional motif reminiscent of the theme music of the Showtime series “Dexter.”
The scenery, sets and background are incredible. Scenes of the Thames, with tall ships at harbor, are breathtaking. The scene in the shipyard, the costumes, sitting rooms, and offices, all are very convincing.
Best of all, the characters are for the most part convincing. Mr. Marsan’s Lestrade is not an idiot, but a good policeman hampered by politics, legalities, and the constraints of his office. Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood, gothically glowering and dark, is believable as the ambitious, probably mad, occultist.
The only exception is Ms. McAdams, who, as Irene Adler, is not quite controlled or formal enough, nor does she seem in enough command of her surroundings, to be completely persuasive as the equal of Holmes, nor does the chemistry really satisfy.
Guy Ritchie, in this film, seems finally to have moved on successfully from his earlier, now entirely wrung-out, London gangster genre. If the viewer is willing to move away from the classic versions of Holmes of Rathbone and Brett, and accept a more human – certainly more troubled – Holmes and a more dashing, complicated Watson, then this is a very good version. Indeed.