His Last Bow – A Film Review of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Sherlock Holmes has been given the Hollywood treatment once again, and like his first outing, this adventure proved to have disastrous consequences for Mr Holmes.
Not the character in the movie, of course… I mean, it had disastrous consequences for the well-loved, British institution devised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle one hundred and twenty five years ago; it had disastrous consequences for the credibility of one of the most famous fictional characters ever devised, and it had disastrous consequences for the entire reputation of British classic literature.
This film contained no aspect of the essence of what makes Sherlock Holmes such a withstanding force in popular culture. We did not see a trace of the dignified, polite, sophisticated, zealous, ageing detective in this film. He was instead, replaced by a gross, caricature; a watered down and simplified Hollywood stereotype. He was pining for a girl and dressing like a woman all the while making the sort of dull observations that would make one six year old say to another six year old, “Wow. You’re so smart.”
The overarching plot, while barely keeping me awake, was simultaneously so unintelligible as to veer off toward events that presented no cause to have happened at all, as well as so dull and predictable that even the bluntest blade in the knife rack could pretty much have the full machinations of the not-so-formidable, but apparently incredibly formidable, antagonist worked out before we see so much as a hint of the opening credits.
The beloved character of Sherlock Holmes in one of his early novels, ‘The Sign of The Four‘, makes such wonderful deductions, as inferring that the tiny scratches on the inside case of a man’s watch can only mean that he is an alcoholic who retires to bed inebriated and attempts to wind it with untrustworthy and shaking hands before the morning. Perfect logic. Traceable and simple, yet clever and observant. This new era Robert Downey ‘Sherlock’ however, made such cunning connections as to a bit of string and a splash of wine on the floor, meaning that two men had stood at that spot and built a secret passageway entrance which was disguised as a coat rack, with the third hook being the lever to open the doorway, and then had celebrated with a toast, clinking their glasses together and spilling some wine as they did so. Makes sense, does it not? No, it doesn’t. The film writers knew that Sherlock was famous for these analytical, ‘sequence of events’ deductions, and had tried to imitate it, but darn it if they just couldn’t quite figure out how to do so in any logical and comprehensible way.
Another key aspect is always the idea to “add some oomph” to a “dull Victorian setting” by introducing the tired, clichéd and overused concept of ‘the ahead of his time weapons maker‘. Countless times has Hollywood been dissatisfied with the machinery that was on offer in an accurate period piece, and so decides to bring in this tedious ploy as an excuse to have enemies running around with modern machine guns, advanced cannons and other weaponry that wouldn’t have been quite so readily available in the 1880s. While we’re on the subject of out of place technology in a period piece, I’m not sure there was any accounting for how the antagonist Professor James Moriarty, had gotten hold of a surgeon able to perform facial readjustment procedures that are still unheard of in the 21st century, let alone the 19th.
I mean to not give away too much of the story, but as soon as I saw the setting of the famous Reichenbach waterfall, I knew what was to happen anyway; for in Conan Doyle’s ‘The Final Problem’, this is the setting in which Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty plummet to their apparent death in an inexorable struggle. Now it’s true that several years later, Sherlock is revealed to have survived this final conflict, the film however decided to only keep its audience mildly concerned for about three minutes, before Holmes popped up in Watson’s office to write a question mark at the end of the eulogy that Watson had written for his supposedly late friend. Why he snuck in and punched an enigmatic punctuation mark onto the page instead of striding in and simply saying “Hey, John. Guess what… I’m alive.” is quite beyond me, but I’m sure it will be explained (or totally overlooked) in the next film in the series.
Now finally, where would a Hollywood recreation be without the introduction of needless, sub-humour and awkward comedy. While Holmes was a renowned master of disguise, I must have missed the case that had him dressing as a woman with a garter belt, fake breasts and mascara. But hey, if the film makers are okay with sullying the dignity of a British national institution in order to coax a cheap giggle from the bottom ten percent, then I guess that’s their prerogative. Also added for a quirk, is Sherlock’s desire to make these odd wall-art costumes, or ‘Urban Camouflage’ as he calls it. Basically, disguises that only offer any discretion if one is stood perfectly still, in an exact spot in an exact place that will have to have been studied and painted up close by an absent third-party to have any effect. Since he only makes two, one for his office and one for Watson’s office, I’d say it was fair to deduce that this too was a totally pointless artifact of apparent humour that when examined, is in utter contrast to the supposed logic upon which the character is supposed to stand. And so that leaves us with one final attempt at misplaced mirth… The coup de grace as far as I’m concerned…
There lies a scene wherein Holmes’ brother Mycroft, portrayed by British media darling Stephen Fry, is having a plain conversation with Watson’s wife Mary. Sounds simple, and it is. This is a scene of exposition, a quick bit of information to move the story along, but a scene that needs to take place. It is also a scene that lacks either of the main stars, and as such, I assume the film makers were worried that this would be a scene that would lose people’s attention. What to do, what to do… Ah, here’s a plan… Make Stephen Fry be naked. Why? Who cares. No explanation, no reasoning, no nothing. They simply have a plump man in his mid-fifties act the scene in the nude. It may be seen as just a cheap and harmless laugh to get the intellectually less-privileged members of the audience through a scene that is bereft of big stars or big explosions, but I must say, I saw it as more…
This scene was a microcosm for not only this film, but any of the Hollywood movies in which a work of classic British heritage is taken and ‘Americanised’ (to use a stereotyping term that I hope you forgive). It happened to Sherlock, as it did to Robin Hood, Dorian Gray and many others. This scene, in which British treasure Stephen Fry stands naked, is a metaphor. They took something beloved and British, inexplicably stripped it bare of all its essence; degraded, humiliated and embarrassed it, and stuck it amongst the flashy veneer of Hollywood, so as to be ridiculed and laughed at, to amuse the lowest common denominator of broad, pandered to audiences.
They could have just made a regular awful movie. The protagonist could have been called ‘Mr Jonah Bryson with his sidekick Dr Reginald Dainsby‘, and it would have made adequate sense. So why did they needlessly shame such an immortaly loved archetype of heroism by attaching his name to it? I know this sounds silly and petty, but it saddens me to know that from now on, this will be the most widely distributed interpretation of who Sherlock Holmes is. Hollywood reaches a scale that the old books never will, and as such, the realisation that in the minds of the majority, Sherlock Holmes is this two dimensional amateur is a great loss for world of popular fiction.
Sorry about this one Mr Holmes, but it looks like this is the one case in which your cunning abilities won’t spare you a humiliating defeat.
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I kind of enjoy these films in a watch once and laugh kind of way. I’ve discovered the trick to watching them however is to not think of them as Sherlock Holmes movies but rather I think of them as a Victorian Era Iron Man. I also saw it the day before the BBC’s brilliant Sherlock series aired so that helped to heal any wounds the movie left as well.
The BBC version is indeed fantastic, and manages to be far more faithful than the Hollywood version, despite being 125 years ahead! It’s such a shame, that the majority will now perceive THIS Sherlock to be THE Sherlock though!
Movie != books. Books can take time for exposition to work its way in, and for deductions to slowly become obvious. Besides, you Brits stole an American institution – the blues – and that didn’t turn out so bad, did it? At least Hollywood didn’t make a series of comedic Holmes movies intended to be a parody, starring a Canadian, as it did with the Bond series.
And what say you of the recent Arthur movie (itself a cheap imitation of an older Arthur movie) that makes a mockery of the even older Arthurian legend? Portraying the once and future king as a spoiled petulant drunkard who marries a prostitute? That has to be at least as galling as this, no?
I really suggest you check out some of the original Sherlock books. It doesn’t take time or complexity for Sherlock’s amazing talents to be showcased, a single paragraph can tell you all you need to know! Or take a look at the fantastic Sherlock series that the BBC are currently doing!
I have to say, while I did intend to, I never saw either Arthur film, but I assume it went similarly to the Alfie films… Smart and silly just became silly… What did you think?
Felix, I cannot agree with you more. Especially the last part, the thing I hate the most about these classic novels turned movies is that the general public now associates the characters with the movie characters. You mention Dorian Gray, this is my favorite book and I’ve read it over 40 times, the movie does no justice to Wilde’s characters at all. I have found myself in conversations with idiots who’ve seen the movie and comment on the characters in ways that make me cringe.
Dorian Gray was my favourite novel, but since they made that abomination of a film, wilted and castrated in ever way, I feel ashamed to admit that, in case anyone associates it with the film! I get that changes have to be made to condense and update a book to be a movie; but the twisted in ways in which these characters are warped and sullied, I find truly staggering… Thanks for reading though!
I’m not sure what the two of you mean by ‘the movie’, but if Sherlock Holmes disturbs you, don’t go anywhere near League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Haven’t seen it and don’t want to. Especially after reviews like this…Same old story: wonderful literature is crucified by pop culture movie hype. ;(
In one of my earlier posts http://juwannadoright.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/on-history/, I referred to a college professor who was not only a wonderful medievalist but was interested in Victorian and Edwardian literature – specifically Sherlock Holmes. A longtime fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Richard was a published Sherlockian scholar, and in 1978 he won the Morley-Montgomery Prize for the best article published in that year in the Baker Street Journal, an article subsequently anthologized in 1989 in Sherlock Holmes in Gas Light: Highlights from the First Four Decades of the Baker Street Journal; other authors in this anthology include T.S. Eliot, Franklin Delano Roosvelt and Christopher Morley.
I have no doubt that if he were alive today, Professor Luman would have referred to Hollywood’s output as “yellow journalism.”
Great review! I LOVED the flick but I didn’t look as closely as you did.
Given your assessment of Sherlock, I’m curious about what you think of the modern-day origin story in BBC’s Sherlock. It’s hardly purist by any means, but it certainly situates itself to an extent within the Holmes Canon–or at least acknowledges it–and a lot of the modernization works because we cannot deny that the amount of technological and industrial advancement we’re experiencing in this century is not unlike what the Victorians experienced in the industrial revolution.
A great point, and I agree; and I love the BBC show. It’s wonderful how they’ve kept the thrill of Holmes being led across Victorian London with a sniffer dog, to Holmes barking orders at the lab-assistant Molly while he examines blood residue under a microscope. I honestly think it’s a fantastic and faithful update, and if you’ve ever read any of the books, you’ll see that it’s so refreshing how much of the dialogue used in the show is directly quoted from them.
The thing I never understood about these Hollywood films, is that, knowing how successful this character has been due to the stories that were written, they still decide to try and write their own! There are sixty Sherlock Holmes books to be read, and yet Hollywood think they can do better by making their own, instead of utilising one of the books! It’s great that the BBC series is, for the most part, flawlessly sticking to, while cleverly updating, the source material.