Retrospective: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Reboots are tricky business but sometimes they are helped by the source material. Movies based off well-loved literary franchises go through many different iterations and are often tinkered to the heart’s desire. Sherlock Holmes is one of the best examples of this as firstly he inspired pretty much every on screen detective ever, as by default Conan Doyle invented the modern genre. Recently there has of course been two major returns of Holmes; the BBC TV series which modernises the stories to the present day and largely follows the plots of the various books, while the other version is Guy Ritchie’s reboot which has spawned two rather successful movies, albeit not necessarily critical success. His films are very interesting, particularly the first because it introduces the characters and the quirks of the books. It has a rather steampunkish feel, in particular through references to stuff which didn’t exist or were in the earliest phases of development. Ritchie’s interpretation of the London in this unreality is what makes it such a compelling reboot and makes it so unlike the various previous incarnations of Holmes. The fact that he is played by an American (Robert Downey Jr.) isn’t as big a problem as the purist might imagine as he pulls off a plausible English accent for Holmes and balances his insanity with the straight man of Watson (Jude Law).

The plot follows a straight ‘whodunit’ along with a bit of the supernatural. However, the plot isn’t that important in this movie as it’s just there to move the story along and introduce us to the various characters we all love from the books such as Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and a hidden Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). The film contains some great sequences of Sherlock Holmes being Sherlock, with some particularly noteworthy camera tricks and editing which gives it a great flow along with a rather self-referential Victorian soundtrack from Hans Zimmer which gets the feel of the movie just right. This Holmes is one with plenty of flaws but his madness is sardonic rather than say depressive (Jeremy Brett for example). His relationship with Watson has the classic interplay between two people who are exasperated with each other but have a very loyal friendship built upon years.

Sherlock is one of the hardest characters to place as he’s a polymath who has to be active otherwise he stagnates. This is one of the trickiest places to put the audience as they are by in large not like that and it’s always been a problem for representations of Sherlock – how do you represent this character that is clearly on another plane of existence? Ritche bravely decides careful editing and a commentary by Sherlock is the best way for the audience to see his way of thinking. He filters and slows down the shots to show that we are in Sherlock’s mind. We see this done in a variety of situations. One of the most prominent uses of this technique occurs at a disaster of a meal with Watson and his wife. You see the world slow and focus on all the little things happening around him, from the waiter stealing the cutlery to various hidden, indiscreet actions from the diners surrounding him, leading the scene to a bare-knuckle boxing ring. This is a very clever example of showing Sherlock’s flexibility both in the mind and body. Ritchie cuts out the exposition by very cleverly showing and not telling what goes on in Sherlock’s life and mind.

It’s a worthy addition to the huge canon of Sherlock related work and it feels really innovative in its steampunk aesthetic, while the sequel emphasizes this yet more prominently. With a very modern film making style. it makes for a very strange comparison with the recent BBC version as this is set in the Victorian era but with a more modern style with jump cuts, filters and so on, while BBC version is set in the present day but far more conventionally filmed.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl


2 thoughts on “Retrospective: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

  1. Your review hit the nail on the head. This movie was epic to say the least. I saw it in theaters first and was even going rent it on pay per view until my co-worker told me I could just wait a little while and watch it at Dish online. I don’t know how long he has worked at Dish but he was right and it is still available at Dish online for all of you die hard Sherlock Fans. After having enjoyed watching it four times the wit still makes me smile. I have read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories and this film has certainly done them justice.

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