The Analytical Mind: Comparing Sherlock Holmes, Then and Now

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Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey jr., left) and Doctor Watson (Jude Law, right) on the hunt for criminals.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective, Sherlock Holmes, is one of English literature’s most recognizable and enduring characters. As such, he has made more than 200 movies appearances since the inception of cinema. The master snoop had been portrayed by such luminaries as Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Christopher Plummer, Patrick Macnee, Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Lee and Charlton Heston. When Madonna’s former husband, British director Guy Ritchie, announced his plans to create a new version of Sherlock Holmes for the big screen, his choice for the part seemed rather curious to a lot of people. The filmmaker went with American actor Robert Downey jr. in the eponym’s role. The oft-troubled performer from ‘the other side of the pond,’ although talented, was a much-criticized selection due to the fact that he was battling drug addiction and legal problems for the better part of the 1990s and, more importantly, because he is no Englishman. Would he be capable of a convincing performance worthy of the legendary mantle?

The first thing that strikes the senses in the new Sherlock Holmes picture is atmosphere. Conan Doyle’s Victorian London is eternally dark, foggy and rainy, and Ritchie perfectly translates this tone into his film. The metropolis looks and feels just as gloomy as described in the stories. For that reason, the Academy-Award nomination for Best Achievement in Art Direction came as no surprise. Although James Cameron’s Avatar eventually emerged as the winner in that particular category, the sets and decorations in Sherlock Holmes are impressive and serve the film well. Aesthetically the film is a success, but what of the narrative and performances?

The Holmes of the 21st century is pitted against a villain called Lord Blackwood, a character who never appeared in any of the original stories by Conan Doyle. He was especially created for this new big-screen version. An aristocrat interested in black magic and all things supernatural, Blackwood, played by Mark Strong, embodies the archetypal adversary of a master investigator like Holmes, who relies on empirical evidence and sheer logic. Introduced as a menace to society, the Lord’s sinister demeanor aptly mirrors the film’s depressing atmosphere. Over the course of the story, however, Blackwood never ascends into the super-villain role English audiences might expect as in the old James Bond pictures (Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the You Only Live Twice for example), or even from the Conan Doyle tales.

This may explain why, at the end of the movie, Holmes’ arch rival is connected to the initial ‘M.’ This letter, as should be obvious to Holmes connoisseurs, refers to Professor Moriarty, who the detective has battled and closely fought with on several occasions in the past, including a fatal duel at the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem, after which Holmes was supposed to be dead. Thus, the protagonist describes him in the story as follows: ‘He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.’ To save a super-villain as a sort of ‘trump card’ for a planned sequel is not an entirely new concept in Hollywood. After all, it has been done in other blockbusters in recent years. When the Batman series was rebooted with Batman Begins in 2005, the hero was pitted against a couple of adversaries that were formidable, but less than seriously threatening on a mortal global scale. After their initial run proved to be successful, the producers introduced the Joker, played by Heath Ledger, who posthumously received an Academy Award for his deliciously deranged performance in The Dark Knight. Perhaps Ritchie and his producers are hoping for a similar success.

Robert Downey, jr. as Sherlock Holmes was a much-maligned and controversial choice in the eyes of the English public, especially purists, in the beginning. Ritchie himself believed the actor, in his early 40s when the production of the film started, was too old for the role at first, until Downey, jr. promptly convinced him otherwise. And the complaint concerning the casting of an American in the most British of roles was most common among those unfamiliar with Downey jr.’s Academy Award-nominated performance as another famous Brit, Charlie Chaplin, in Sir Richard Attenborough’s biographical film Chaplin in 1992 (where he acquired an accent that Ritchie felt was ‘flawless’ for the part of Holmes).

Having fallen from grace within the film industry and spent several years sobering up, Downey, jr. can relate to the eccentricity of a character like Holmes and his experiences. The famous literary detective has a severe drug habit, heavily consuming various substances to drag himself through the chores of everyday life, and is often lethargic as soon as there is no enigma for him to solve. Downey even commented on his perception of the character as follows: ‘The more I look into the books, the more fantastic it becomes. Holmes is such a weirdo… when you read the description of the guy – quirky and kind of nuts – it could be a description of me.’ Because of those similar traits, Downey’s portrayal of the English icon is infused with more humour and dry wit in the fast-paced blockbuster than there might have been otherwise.

Downey jr.’s Holmes is especially convincing when tackling the detective’s ethical struggles. He gambles, drinks, consumes narcotics, breaks the law and has generally to be considered morally ambivalent, especially so in between cases. Doctor Watson described Sherlock Holmes in the following manner as early as their second appearance in the novel The Sign of the Four: ‘So swift, silent, and furtive were his movements, like those of a trained blood-hound picking out a scent, that I could not think but what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law, instead of exerting them in its defense.’ Like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and other heroes from American hard-boiled crime fiction (such as The Maltese Falcon), the detective is therefore depicted as someone who acts for good’s sake but, in terms of his character, might just as easily have become a criminal mastermind instead. There is a thin red line between legal and illegal that Holmes frequently crosses. Downey, jr. nails the detective’s behavior in that regard, even sporting a gaunt and skinny frame as a physical representation of the protagonist’s unhealthy internal conflict.

Where the film departs from the original depiction, however, is narrative pace. Ritchie’s version is a more action-laden Holmes than Conan Doyle’s. On that score, it is a liberal adaptation, not nearly as faithful as the wonderful Soviet series Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i Doktora Vatsona from the 1980s (starring skilled actor Vasili Livanov as the great detective and Vitali Solomin as his companion), and partially, even somewhat exaggerated. This becomes particularly obvious in some scenes when Holmes pre-calculates a sequence of moves to defeat opponents in kickboxing, only to follow it by precisely executing each of those moves at a breathtaking, unrealistic speed. Although Conan Doyle’s detective does box and engage in other sports as well, he never really seems to use his skills in his investigations. His Holmes is nothing more than one brilliant brain, lacking emotional depth, and oftentimes merely remaining seated in an armchair at his quarters in London’s Baker Street to solve a case. Nonetheless, the picture references and alludes to the original stories at numerous occasions, using a bulldog called Gladstone initially mentioned in the first ever entry of the Holmes series, A Study in Scarlet, or quotes such as ‘Crime is common, logic is rare,’ and ‘Data! Data! Data! […] I can’t make bricks without clay’ from The Copper Beeches or, ‘My mind […] rebels at stagnation. Give me problems. Give me work’ from The Sign of the Four.

Likewise, Jude Law’s portrayal of Holmes’ loyal friend Doctor Watson was more of an actual partner in the film rather than a dunce awestruck by his mate’s brilliance as in films from the 1930s and 40s. Law plays the surgeon with more depth than has been typical, to some extent thanks to Downey jr.’s input and desire that emphasizing Watson’s traits would make him more interesting. Those qualities are not entirely positive, though. Of course, the doctor is knowledgeable in medical matters, intellectual and, as a former soldier, knows about loyalty and betrayal. But he is also a notorious womanizer and gambler. For that reason, Holmes has to keep small sums of money from Watson, to ensure he will not lose it while giving in to his addiction to games of chance. So, just like the mastermind the film is named for, Watson is sketched with both flaws and virtues. On the one hand, he remains by Holmes’ side, even during the latter’s more depressive moments. On the other hand, when Watson (in another moment taken from The Sign of the Four) loses his heart to Mary Morstan and becomes engaged to her, their friendship is severely tested, with Holmes’ reaction being one of intense jealousy. And it is exactly this constellation that proves to be one of the most vitalizing elements in Ritchie’s motion picture. The two main characters share a close, albeit (in contrary to various rumours that were circulating before the film’s release) just platonic relationship, and a third person entering that privacy sparks Holmes’ envy and thus guarantees verbal sparring between the protagonists.

Women play an important role in the movie, anyway, as there is a love interest for both male leads – even for the rigidly logical detective. Holmes has always been suspicious of females in the Conan Doyle stories. Again, a quote from The Sign of the Four: ‘Women are never to be entirely trusted – not the best of them.’ This still does not save him from falling for Irene Adler, an American femme fatale who got the better of Sherlock Holmes in the original tales (played by the American, Rachel McAdams). Therefore, she is introduced by Doctor Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia as follows: ‘To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.’ The detective admires her because she not only had the guts to outwit him, but also had the mental capacity to do so. He keeps a photograph of Adler at his place as a reminder of their encounter.

As is common in silver screen versions of the Holmes adventures, the protagonist and she are turned into a couple. This, however, does not correspond to her description in A Scandal in Bohemia. Once more, Doctor Watson: ‘It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position.’ In the new Sherlock Holmes film, they are portrayed as former lovers, though, and just like in the original Conan Doyle stories, she occasionally makes a fool of the great detective. And in another allusion to A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes keeps her photograph at his apartment in the film. Adler is sketched ambiguously. She is a master thief who is in the chief villain’s services for a time and she tricks Holmes, so in this regard the detective’s love interest is drawn negatively. On the other hand, the fact that the symbolization of the good loves her and that she joins him at the very end of the picture make her a positive character. The relationship between them and their common past deliver some of the more entertaining moments of the film.

The same holds true for the second woman among the movie’s principal personae. A good deal of comic relief is derived from when the detective fights over his best friend with the latter’s new fiancée. Mary Morstan, Watson’s love interest, is also a character from the original stories. The doctor and Holmes become acquainted with her while working on their second case, which is, yet again, The Sign of the Four. In the Conan Doyle novel, Morstan (played by Kelly Reilly) and Watson become engaged at the end of the book. Afterwards, the detective’s loyal companion moves out of the Baker Street apartment to settle down with his new wife. This element is woven into Ritchie’s big screen adventure and causes a conflict with Holmes, who feels neglected by the doctor.

The fact that the protagonist, whose name the film bears, has known Irene Adler for years before the time the movie is set in makes it, in some respects, anachronistic to the literary Holmes canon. A Scandal in Bohemia, the first-ever appearance of Adler, takes place right after Watson married Mary Marston, as the doctor tells the reader in the aforementioned story: ‘I had seen little of Holmes since the singular chain of events which I have already narrated in a bold fashion under the heading The Sign of the Four. My marriage had, as he foretold, drifted us away from each other.’ In Ritchie’s picture, the chain of events in this respect is flipped. Holmes had known Adler for years before Watson became acquainted with Morstan.

A more accurate portrayal of the original characters from the Conan Doyle stories is given of the police officers from Scotland Yard. Spearheaded by Inspector Lestrade, the one investigator who most frequently appears in all the tales, London’s authorities are just as inept and clueless in Ritchie’s film as in the literary canon. In the latter, Lestrade even confesses to Holmes that he considers him to be the superior detective in private, while refusing to admit the same in public. And just like in the stories, the police in the film are merely extras for the better part of the movie, toys in the hands of corrupt officials and their ploys.

Director Guy Ritchie successfully transports English icon Sherlock Holmes into the 21st century in what is a wildly entertaining Hollywood blockbuster movie. Just as how James Bond is continually revitalized by constant updates and currently experiencing a renaissance of sorts as a character for the new millennium, the same goes for the master detective. As for inspired the prevalence of reboots in recent film history, a lot depends on the actor who stars as the hero (Daniel Craig as Her Majesty’s agent 007, Christian Bale as Batman or, in this case, Robert Downey jr. as Sherlock Holmes), the directors and the script. This particular entry in the long list of cinematic adventures using Arthur Conan Doyle’s template succeeds in all three aforesaid categories. While certainly a flawed film, Ritchie’s entry into the canon marks an excellent beginning in what looks to become a series of films with the Robert Downey, jr., Jude Law tandem as one of Britain’s most beloved dynamic duos. ‘A storm is coming,’ Irene Adler tells the detective at the end of Sherlock Holmes foreshadowing the darkness known as Professor Moriarty, all but promising a more enduring battle in sequels to come. If anything, it can be regarded as another nod to England’s most famous secret agent. ‘James Bond will return…’ is usually the end of those movies and hints at the next entry. After Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was a huge box-office hit, predicting a sequel is, to use a quote erroneously attributed to the famous detective, ‘elementary, my dear Watson.’