PBS on speed

Sherlock Holmes

At least Holmes speaks the language of love.

At least Holmes speaks the language of love.

Rated 2.0

In the late 1890s, when the American actor William Gillette was preparing to star in his own play based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, he wired Doyle in England: “May I marry Holmes?” Doyle, who was growing tired of Holmes himself, replied, “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.”

In the 2009 version of Sherlock Holmes, director Guy Ritchie and a quartet of writers (Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg and Lionel Wigram) take Sir Arthur at his word. If you’re tired of Sherlock Holmes yourself—those musty Victorian novels and stories, those creaky old Basil Rathbone black-and-white movies, those snooty PBS dramas with Jeremy Brett and their trivial stories about blue carbuncles and speckled bands—then this is the movie for you. It’s Sherlock Holmes for the ADD generation, jerking and twitching like a crank freak itching for his next sniff.

If you’ve seen any of Ritchie’s previous movies—say, Snatch or RocknRolla—then you’ll have an idea of the style he adopts in Sherlock Holmes; it’s the only one he knows. His camera moves in jittery fits and starts, seeming to wander aimlessly around the set before suddenly lurching forward into an extreme close-up on this or that. It’s the cinematic equivalent of being grabbed by the scruff of the neck, yanked off your feet and hauled over until your eyes are 3 inches from what Ritchie wants you to see. Ritchie is like a shouter at a cocktail party; he can’t think of any other way to get our attention.

Or maybe he’s just trying to keep us from noticing that he doesn’t have much of a story. The script has the telltale signs of too many cooks—the four writers’ names are linked by the word “and,” indicating by Writers Guild rule that none of them collaborated with any of the others. Wigram and Johnson separately concocted the story; then Johnson, Peckham and Kinberg (probably in approximately that order) took respective whacks at a screenplay.

The result—not to put too fine an edge on it—is gibberish. Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) apprehend the serial killer Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) before his lordship can dispatch his fifth victim in a ritual murder. Blackwood is hanged and buried, but soon his tomb is broken open and another man found in his coffin. London flies into a panic, fearing Blackwood is back from the dead and marshaling his powers of black magic to take over the world. Or something. Meanwhile, Holmes tries to sabotage Watson’s engagement to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly)—in this Holmes universe, The Sign of Four never happened and Holmes and Miss Morstan haven’t met. Somehow embroiled in all this is Holmes’ old flame Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), pursuing her own agenda at the behest of a shadowy employer. We learn who this employer is in the last scene, as Ritchie and company optimistically set us up for the sequel.

Conan Doyle’s legions of admirers—whether they call themselves Holmesians or Sherlockians—are not likely to gather this latest incarnation to their hearts. But the truth is the great detective has survived worse treatment; see (or rather, don’t) the versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles starring either Stewart Granger or Richard Roxburgh.

Downey isn’t such a bad choice for Holmes, even if he does look scruffy and hung-over, like a typical Ritchie protagonist (or one of his own mug shots). Even if he is channeling Tony Stark more than Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett. And even if he does mumble his dialogue as if he’s embarrassed to speak it out loud—that much, at least, is understandable. And Law is a more-than-acceptable Watson. (Even so, the casting might have worked better if Law and Downey had switched roles—and were in a better movie.)

There’s a sign early in the movie of what we’re in for. A newspaper headline proclaiming the arrest of Lord Blackwood carries the headline: “Sherlock Holmes Aides Police.” Whether we should blame the writers, the director, the montage editor or the nine producers, the implication is clear: This movie was made by semi-literates. Never mind English literature; these guys don’t even know English.