Friday, December 16, 2011

Don't Call Me Sherly

Long ago, during a class that introduced me and a bunch of my 11-year-old peers to the school library (where I soon discovered a complete set of H.G. Wells' work, but that's another story), our English teacher asked a question: 'Where does Sherlock Holmes live?' My hand wasn't the only one to shoot up, and I forget who gave the correct answer. But I do remember that as far as our teacher was concerned it was the wrong answer. 'You see, boys, Sherlock Holmes was never alive. So he could not have lived anywhere.' I've never forgiven him for trying to turn the treasure house of the library into a mausoleum.

He picked on Sherlock Holmes because Holmes is one of the most famous fictional characters in fiction, who had one of the most famous addresses in literature: one of us was bound to know the answer (you know it, of course). Sherlock Holmes is so famous that you don't have to have read any of Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories, or to have seen any of the numerous films in which Holmes has appeared (more than any other fictional character), to know several singular facts about him. I first encountered him in an anthology of the original stories, in a limp-covered volume dating from the 1920s; I've just encountered him again in a preview of his latest film incarnation, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Oh dear.

It's the sequel to director Guy Ritchie's first Sherlock Holmes film, which turned Holmes into an action hero in a lightly steam-punked Victorian London, and featured rapid-fire comic banter between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and Watson (Jude Law) and elaborate bullet- and explosion-ridden set pieces punctuated by sequences of slow motion, time-slicing, and other techniques Ritchie previously deployed on his gangster films. I thought it was rather good fun.  Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is more of the same, but ups the stakes by introducing Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), whose fiendish plans soon puts a crimp in Doctor Watson's honeymoon.

The plot is very loosely based on 'The Final Problem', the story in which Conan Doyle tried to kill off his most famous creation. It kicks off with an explosion in Strasbourg and an encounter between Holmes, Irene Adler, the femme fatale who helped him in his previous adventure, and a fistful of goons, and barely pauses for breath in a headlong dash that involves gypsies, anarchists, a chase across Europe, and diplomatic skulduggery. It's not a bad film, as noisy spectacles go. Its varied locations are packed with period detail, Downey turns in another fine comic performance, Law's Watson is an able foil to Holmes' quick-fire eccentricities, and the postmortem reveals of how the great detective foresaw and confounded the knavish tricks of his enemies are as clever as in the first film.

But it isn't as good as its predecessor, doesn't add anything new to the canon, and it doesn't quite know what to do with most of the supporting characters. Although Mycroft Holmes is drolly played by Stephen Fry, the script doesn't do much to show that he's Holmes' smarter, older brother, except to call him Sherly. I would have liked to have seen more of Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace, who played Lisbeth Salander in the original Dragon Tattoo trilogy), the gypsy whose brother has been caught up in Moriarty's plans. Rapace's performance is lit by smouldering intelligence, but like the other women in the film she takes second place to the bromance between Holmes and Watson, whose sparring banter is sharp and lively at its best, and as camp as a pantomine dame at its worst (the film's humour is laid on with a broad brush: the only thing funnier than a man in a dress is a middle-aged man clad only in his dignity).

The film's big problem is that in hindsight, once the dazzle and noise of the action sequences has died down, the logic of its narrative falls apart. To be fair, it's a problem common to most action films, and to quite a few genre novels, too (writers: if you rely on big set pieces to keep the narrative flowing, you're in trouble - especially if your biggest and noisiest set piece takes place in the middle of the story rather than towards the end). More fatally, for this particular action film, the menace and significance of its villain diminishes as the film progresses, and Moriarty's fiendish plan is the stuff of a thousand action movies in which the villain promotes war for fun and/or profit - Mission Impossible IV uses the same old tired trope. Here's a bit of useful advice for budding evil masterminds: if your brilliant scheme involves starting a war somewhere, it probably isn't that brilliant, and will inevitably be thwarted at the last moment. Throw a couple of henchmen in the shark pool, relax with a martini salted with orphans' tears, and think of something else.


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