One of the greatest testaments to a concept’s artistic quality is how well it might be adapted to different versions that maintain its core qualities, yet succeed on the strengths of their own unique interpretations.By that standard, it’s easy to see why Sherlock Holmes remains one of the greatest detective characters ever conceived. From page to theater to screens large and small, Holmes remains the quintessentially compelling crimefighter, a figure who is at least a step ahead of everyone else, daring the audience to see if they can catch up with him, knowing full well that they can’t. This chase never fails to delight, and so it does once more in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 take on the subject, with his stylish, kinetic and eponymous Sherlock Holmes.
London, 1890. Sherlock Holmes—long the go-to man for Scotland Yard’s most baffling crimes—collars the degenerate mastermind Lord Blackwood, who promises Holmes that his reign of terror is only just beginning. When Blackwood appears to cheat death long after stopping short at the end of a hangman’s rope, Holmes is on the case once more. Only this time Watson wants to retire form the adventuring life, and Holmes’ patron is none other than the master thief Irene Adler, Holme’s sometime love interest and all-time rival. Before long, Holmes, Watson and Adler discover that Blackwood really is back on the prowl and is behind a series of murders so chilling as to suggest supernatural influence. When the plot turns toward the entirety of Parliament itself, Holmes must use his every mental and physical faculty to unravel Blackwood’s mystery and prevent catastrophe from befalling not just London, but the heart of the British Empire itself. Just another day at the office for the boys from 221B Baker Street.
Giving a character such as Sherlock Holmes to a director such as Ritchie might seem like a curious choice, considering Ritchie’s love for grimy characters, brutal action and a heavily stylized storytelling technique that has been accused of favoring style over substance. However, all that is aptly restrained here, providing a fast-paced and relatively action-packed Sherlock adventure, all while keeping the thing feeling firmly rooted to where it belongs. This vision of London halfway between a bygone and modern age is beguiling in its look, costuming and atmosphere. The chemistry between Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson is spot on (not to mention ace supporting turns from Rachel McAdams, Eddie Marsan and Mark Strong). And a fresh take on age-old characters makes the entire enterprise accessible to a modern audience while still taking us by the hand into a period at turns both strange and familiar.
Adler’s revision as an alluring anti-Holmes keeps things from becoming too much of a boy’s club, while creating an unfamiliar vulnerability in our hero. Watson’s revision as an able man of action curiously co-dependent on Holmes elevates him from observant sidekick to clever brother-in-arms. But it’s the take on Sherlock himself that works best here, casting him as man more cursed than blessed with an inability to notice everything around him, forced to draw the kinds of correlations nobody else has the brainpower to manage. Perhaps for the first time, we are given a look at Holmes’ eccentricities from the inside, and for all of his flightiness and bad manners, Holmes is more sympathetic than he’s ever been. Sure, solving crime is a thrill. And being smarter than everyone has its satisfactions. But what this Holmes really wants, more than anything, is for some peace and quiet so he might put the racing gears of his mind in neutral for once. He knows he will never get it. But with each challenge, he can at least forget it for a time. In Doyle’s original tales, Holmes was an opium addict. Here, he is addicted to his own superhuman abilities. Whether or not his rock bottom will involve dying on a case remains to be seen, but Holmes is relatively certain that he can arrange it.
It’s especially enjoying, then, to watch Holmes struggle to understand the mystery here for so much of the story. The longer things go, the less certain we are that Holmes truly has a grasp of things. We are not used to seeing Holmes so deeply behind the eight ball as he is here, and as we watch an increasingly perplexed and outfoxed Holmes scramble to decode Blackwood’s devious hints, we begin to think, maybe Holmes isn’t used to this, either.
This all leads to a terrific moment of truth when, after having seen a few horrific murders that appear to defy any kind of logical explanation, Holmes finally begins to put things together. Blackwood’s fatal flaw is to plan on too grandiose of a scale, and it gives Holmes the opening he needs to unravel the entire plot. But not before Blackwood lays siege to Parliament itself, and Britain’s greatest politicians begin to believe, if only for a moment, Blackwood’s particular brand of dark sorcery.
That is why Holmes’ climactic explanation of the mystery is tinged with an air of fury. Not because Blackwood’s plan almost worked, but because its true target wasn’t the British Empire but the domains of reason, logic and science. Holmes doesn’t really care of the Empire falls. But he does care for his own weird little world, and perhaps for the first time, the world’s greatest detective felt a personal sting aimed at him. When Holmes is later informed that there is an even greater evil at work in the form of the nefarious Professor Moriarty, Holmes relishes the challenge to come. But had Blackwood not vexed him so sorely, would he have even been up to it? Only Holmes can answer that, and as we’ve already found out, he wouldn’t give us a straight answer if we asked him. After all, a man can solve mysteries for only so long before desiring to become one himself.