by Alex. Kane
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
BBC Sherlock Series 2 (January 2012)
The blunt reality is that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows—enjoyable though it is at one level—has little or nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes—other than hijacking the title and the characters. It doesn’t even fall into the category of reinterpretation: being, instead, a dog’s dinner of every buddy-buddy movie you can think of.
There is very little actual detection required and the basic plot is a lazy, repetitive re-hash of Bond, Bourne and Mission Impossible. How many movies have there been about a psychopathic megalomaniac who wants to “make the world sit up and take notice”? How many movies have there been about someone buying up arms, food and medical companies just so that he can make yet another fortune when a world war breaks out? And how many movies have there been in which the bad guy seems incapable of just shooting the one person who can thwart his plans: or, at the very least, employing henchmen who can do the job for him?
Anyway, what Moriarty is doing here is much the same as most other super villains have done. Buying up businesses, knocking off his opponents and bribing and bullying his way into a position of influence is standard fare for baddies. But there’s clearly no great intellect, logic or brilliance required for all of this. In other words, this Moriarty is just your run-of-the-mill sociopath.
Jared Harris plays him reasonably well—but no more than that. This is not the sort of villain who makes your blood freeze or who bamboozles you with the breadth of his daring or imagination. And since he is supposed to be an opponent worthy of Holmes, as well as being a central character in the film, all of this adds up to a pretty serious flaw.
Stephen Fry, as Mycroft, is just Stephen Fry as himself. But then that’s all Fry ever is. It’s the fourth film—out of the small number he has made—in which he has appeared naked. It’s a truly horrible sight and, in the overall context of the film, totally unnecessary. Paul Anderson’s Moran is a wasted character: arguably one of the most incompetent bad guy sidekicks I have ever seen. And why did he have to look so like Moriarty?
It’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that Noomi Rapace—as Simza Heron—has been brought in simply so that the producers can say they have a female in a lead role. She really has nothing to do, other than run around a lot and point us in the direction of a gang of anarchists that Holmes should have been able to track down for himself.
Jude Law has been turned into a comic foil. There were times when his supposed rapport with Holmes looked like Abbot and Costello or Martin and Lewis at their very worst.
Downey’s Holmes—which was interesting the first time around—has descended into a combination of pantomime dame and pure caricature. Indeed, there’s one scene in which he looks like he’s paying some strange sort of homage to Heath Ledger’s role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Turning the disguises into a running joke—which is really all they were—was a mistake; as was allowing the ‘action’ to take precedence over the analysis and acting.
It’s all slap, bang, wallop stuff, with director Guy Ritchie unable to accept that doing the same slow-motion stuff over and over again adds nothing to the plot and certainly doesn’t make the characters more interesting. Also, if you are going to set Holmes in the right period then at least use the language, convention and social mores of that period. It would also have helped if the writers had indicated some knowledge of the characters, for it often just sounded as though they had googled Holmes and then opted for the clichés.
Nonetheless, the film has made tons of money and there will almost certainly be another one. But the first one was ridiculously melodramatic and this one—with the stereotypical bad guys and stooges—was absurdly over-the-top.
It’s a pity. Downey Jnr is a very good actor and Holmes—more so than most characters—deserves an intelligent script. But all he gets to do here is spout clichés, swap wisecracks and slap people about. Fine, if you like that sort of thing: but don’t pretend that this is Sherlock Holmes in anything other than name.
All of which brings us to Benedict Cumberbatch and the latest three episodes of Sherlock. My problem with this batch is that they have become too clever and too convoluted for their own good. So determined are the writers to make the character ‘cool’ that they have turned him to an icy freak: a sort of celebrity detective for the era of Hello and Big Brother. And I am sick to death of the running joke about Watson’s concern that they are not mistaken for a gay couple.
Series 2, Episode 1—A Scandal in Belgravia (January 1, 2012) The dominatrix theme has already been explored in CSI and House, both of which have Holmes-connected lead characters with their own versions of Irene Adler: and the plot resembled a hodgepodge of Spooks and Hustle.
The finale was pure hokum—are we really supposed to believe that Holmes popped over to Karachi, helped Adler to escape from a terrorist group and then that he and Mycroft cooked up a story to convince Watson that she was dead—but that Sherlock was being allowed to believe she was in a witness protection scheme in America? Anyway, it has left the door open for the return of Adler at some point.
What worried me slightly was that Holmes had gone from being quirky to being downright rude—something he rarely was in the original stories. The scene of him in Buckingham Palace, in his bed sheet, was both petulant and unbelievable.
There were a couple of nice jokes along the way about Watson’s blog references to ‘The Speckled Blonde’ and ‘The Navel Treatment.’ That said, Martin Freeman’s Watson is beginning to wander too close to the territory of being a wide-eyed, open-mouthed bystander. He is in danger of becoming a Dr Who type companion.
Mark Gatiss’ Mycroft is weakly drawn and weakly acted. Mycroft is supposed to be a figure of substance, in every sense of that term, but this Mycroft is a bitchy, pedantic, lazily put together creation.
Episode 2: The Hounds of Baskerville (January 8, 2012) This was just twaddle: and finally so far-fetched that it became, in every sense of the term, incredible. I have some experience in these matters and I know that you can’t just waltz in and out of high security bases and Watson would never have even got into the base without specific clearance and his own pass. How likely is it that a few clicks of a computer—having just guessed the password!!!—would give you access to top secret CIA material? How likely is it that Frankland would have had a tee-shirt with a H.O.U.N.D logo on it? How likely is it that he could have covered a moor with gas bombs?
This story looked like so many of the dramas that came out in the wake of the Dolly the Sheep cloning story—particularly Chimera (1991), which it resembled in many ways, including being set on a remote moor. The other problem is that this could easily have been an episode of Dr Who: so much so, in fact, that I half expected Holmes to pull out a sonic screwdriver to open locked doors! There was nothing uniquely Holmesian about this and very little in the way of detection.
Episode 3: The Reichenbach Fall (January 15, 2012) Jim Moriarty is a villain straight from a Marvel Comic, complete with the wildly over-the-top dialogue and the hackneyed psychopathic tendencies.
Again, the plot depends on us believing a number of things which are very difficult to believe. Moriarty was arrested red-handed at the scene in the Tower of London. Whatever about Pentonville and the Bank of England, a jury could not have returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’ for that particular offence. Why would Mycroft have spilled the beans on Sherlock just to get Moriarty to talk? Internal investigations would have indicated—and very quickly too—that the ‘events’ at the Tower, Bank and Prison—were not triggered by a single computer code. Why was Moriarty not recognised as a ‘child entertainer’ during his trial? I have worked for newspapers and the Sherlock expose would never have been handled in that way.
It was just downright silly in a number of places. The whole, how-did-he-survive-the-fall story, will keep fans busy for months on blogs and tweets: but maybe they should look at what happened in the last Dr Who series, when the Dr survived what looked like his inevitable demise. Mind you, that resolution was absurd, as, I suspect, will Holmes’s survival prove to be.
It was nice, by the way, to see that the agitated member of the Diogenes Club was played by the 92 years old Douglas Wilmer.
My general impression is that it might have been better if the writers of Sherlock had opted for new stories rather than re-landscaping the existing ones. It actually restricts then in many ways, forcing them down ever more convoluted avenues to ensure that they stay reasonably ‘faithful’ to the original.
But as with the Downey vehicles this Sherlock has also been a ratings success, so there will more episodes next year. I doubt, though, if I will watch either of them again. I’m not the sort of purist who expects everything about Holmes to remain the same. But I am the sort of purist who believes that there are key aspects, values and characteristics of Holmes which should not be tampered with.
Freeman and Law will, I suspect, become Trivial Pursuit questions—“Who played Watson to Downey and Cumberbatch’s Holmes?” Rathbone and Brett became the Holmes of their generations because there really wasn’t much competition (plus the fact they were also very good in the role): and to a lesser extent that is also true of Cushing, Wilmer and Merrison. I’m not convinced, though, that either Cumberbatch or Downey will stand the test of time. They are certainly interesting additions to the long list of Holmesian interpretations, but in twenty years times I doubt if they will be remembered as giants.
©Copyright Alex. Kane. Review published 20 January 2012.
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