The Woman (Or, Thoughts on Sherlock Holmes at the Request of Dara)

Magnifying Glass by Auntie P.
Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy of Auntie P.

It certainly took me long enough to get around to seeing Sherlock Holmes, for which I apologize.  I promised frequent reader and real-life pal Dara I’d write about the movie, which at long last I have.  I should preface this entry by saying that I’m a bit of mental Holmes fan.  One of the nicest gifts I ever received was the Leslie Klinger edition of the short stories, and I was once drawn into a shouting matching in college over Holmes and the role of depravity in Victorian society.  So that dedication will, by necessity, inform some of what I write here.

First, the plot is sheer and utter rot.  Really, just utter nonsense.  The movie relies heavily on speculations of the occult, which feature but rarely in Holmes stories and for good reason.  They always come across as nonsensical, and while they give Guy Ritchie an excuse to show off some special effects, it means the whole movie is a bit silly.  The filmmakers were always going to have to invent an original plot for a full-length Holmes movie, I think.  They’re short stories for a reason: most of these cases absorb Holmes for several days or a week, and then not fully.  It takes a much more complex mystery to fully absorb Holmes intensely and fully for a significant period of time.  There are some Holmes stories that could be plausibly adapted into a full-length movies, but some of them, most particularly A Study in Scarlet, aka Sherlock Holmes Fights the Mormons, are probably unsaleable for political reasons, or are too tame for today’s tastes, like The Hound of the Baskervilles.  The Final Problem, which has Holmes and Watson journeying across Europe in flight from Professor Moriarty, and Holmes working for months to catch a criminal mastermind, has the scope and drama for a full movie, but it requires substantial setup of Moriarty as a criminal mastermind, something this movie does only intermittently effectively.  The Final Problem could make a marvelous conclusion to a franchise, but only if a) Brad Pitt is not cast as Moriarty and b) the story can be done with the appropriate tension and drama.

My complaints about the plot aside, I actually think the movie does quite a nice job of interpreting Holmes.  There’s a lovely scene towards the beginning of the movie that I think does very well at explaining Holmes’ isolation.  He’s meeting Watson and Watson’s fiancee for dinner, and as Alex Remington and I discussed after watching the movie together, as the movie shows Holmes hearing and noticing everything going on in the restaurant, it’s clear how inescapable and even unbearable his powers of observation make the world for him.  But the scene also ends with a wonderful note: Holmes offends Watson’s fiancee, and they leave, but as they depart, Holmes’ dinner is served.  He ordered early, well-aware that the dinner party wouldn’t make it through the evening, or even to the meal, intact, so there was no reason to wait.  It’s a poignant, subtle self-aware moment.

That said, the film’s great tragedy is in its utter misunderstanding of Irene Adler.  In the movie, she’s an old fiancee of Holmes’, and a master criminal.  She never, however, actually seems exceptionally competent, except in a scene where she handily dispatches and robs a pair of footpads in an alley–Holmes tracks her easily, for example.  And there’s not a lot to her life of crime.  Adler’s just a sassy super-criminal.  She apparently cares about Holmes a lot.  But she’s eye candy, and it’s a waste of time for Rachel McAdams.  It’s particularly unfortunate given what a marvelous character Adler is in the Holmes canon.  In the stories, she’s a genuine adventuress, someone who lives by her own highly articulated moral code.  She’s not a criminal, per se, though she is suspected of being a blackmailer at one point.  The wonderful thing about that suspicion is not that she’s an unrepentant criminal, but that Holmes and others are wrong about her.  They underestimate her both as a survivor, who can elude a great detective, and as a moral being.  Making her a master criminal and nothing else in the movie debases her, and ruins an excellent plot device.