By Faith Zhang
Standing outside the movie theatre this January, my companion struck up a conversation with a woman standing nearby and happened to mention that we planned to see Sherlock Holmes (because Avatar was sold out, incidentally—on a Sunday night a month after its release). “It’s not very good,” she said, “they made it weird—like, with vampires.”
Strictly speaking, the latter half of that statement is untrue. There are no vampires in Sherlock Holmes, which should not come as a surprise but may nevertheless be a disappointment to the Twilight-loving segment of the population. But this nameless woman isn’t entirely wrong—the movie isn’t very good, and if the primary villain isn’t actually a vampire, he claims to have risen from the grave, among other things. At other times, he merely looks like Voldemort.
It’s undeniable: the plot is tenuous and implausible at best, and it lacks the verve required to sweep the audience away despite those weaknesses. There are other problems, too. I’m no purist when it comes to movies adapted from books, but there was something deeply uncomfortable about a plot so fixated on what appears to be the supernatural, even if it is all explained away at the end in what amounts to a hasty postscript; stories about Sherlock Holmes should, in the end, be about rationality (and at any rate, Sherlock Holmes meeting the dark powers has already been done—and done better—in Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald, which posits a Victorian world invaded by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos). Furthermore, the sense of place is somehow missing. The director, Guy Ritchie, is British, and yet there is something that feels distinctly American about the film, and it’s more than merely the choice to do very little with accents; the appearance of the American ambassador, perhaps, which feels forced and inorganic, and the American eagle as one of the keys to the puzzle.
That said, this version of Sherlock Holmes is not without its pleasures. Rachel McAdams makes a charming Irene Adler, all big eyes and deceptively sweet voice, and her interaction with Robert Downey, Jr.’s Holmes is quite enjoyable. If you like the movie, though, despite all its flaws—and I confess that I did—it will be because of the relationship between Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson, who is a confident, competent fighting man with a streak of humor, unlike the brainless bumbler who appears in other adaptations. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories make it clear that Watson very much admires Holmes, and that is certainly on display here; but what makes the film’s portrayal of that relationship delightful is the way it acknowledges how absolutely infuriating a roommate Holmes must be, whatever brilliance he may possess—bullet holes do not make for good wall decoration. Watson accepts it with more equanimity than most of us could muster and with something of a fond exasperation; though he plans to move out and marry, he cannot resist being drawn back into Holmes’s cases. Holmes, on the other hand, is clearly equally fond of Watson, though he shows it in funny ways (like stealing Watson’s waistcoat).
Were I to describe the movie in a sentence, it would not be “Holmes, with the help of his trusty sidekick Watson, uncovers a threat to Britain and the world;” it would be “Holmes resorts to increasingly desperate methods in the attempt to keep Watson from leaving him.” It is the decision to keep this relationship in the foreground that rescues Sherlock Holmes from utter mediocrity and turns it into a romp through Victorian England.
Faith Zhang ’11 (fhzhang@fas) refuses to use the word