By Noel Oxford
For something to do on the boat back from Roadburn, I snuck into the ferry cinema without paying and watched Sherlock Holmes. It was the perfect crime, one which even Holmes himself would have overlooked. So, why not now take a box of Crayola and colour me surprised to learn that I actually wouldn’t have minded paying for it.
I suspect some people might be surprised at Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of the beloved calculating-machine as a dissolute, scruffy, socially inept, scatterbrained, bohemian autistic, given that the character’s most enduring traits are his penetrating insight and his impeccable Victorian gentleman’s dress sense. But it meshes surprisingly well with the books, and even with the 1980s TV series, which purposely set out to be definitive. The one opportunity I’m surprised Guy Ritchie didn’t take was to wallow in Holmes’ habitual drug use, something even a prime-time family drama didn’t shrink from.
Opposite Downey, Jude Law plays the faithful Dr Watson as an irascible straight-man, constantly biting his lip with frustration at his cohort’s antics. He’s a pretty negative presence in the film, really, in the sense that he just doesn’t seem to be there. The whole thing is about Holmes; or more specifically, about Downey Jr. I do believe the man could make a smell-o-vision documentary about explosive, bubbling, burning diarrhoea watchable.
Thing is, there’s really not much else to talk about in this film. There’s not much of the old sleuthy-sleuthy to be had, nor is there a great deal in the way of the detailed recitations of brilliant deductive logic that Holmes is best known for. The plot is really not very mysterious, so much as a hackneyed evil genius narrative that strings together the action sequences. But those are pretty bloody good.
Most of the derring-do seems to take place near, around, over and even in the Thames. There’s a big old battle in and around a shipyard, a spot of mucking about in boats and sewers, and a bit where Holmes jumps out of the side of Parliament. The vision of grey, damp, industrial Victorian London that Ritchie shows us is really pretty spectacular. There are cranes and skeletal buildings creeping up the horizon, and a gloomy, unfinished Tower Bridge hulks between Tower Hamlets and Southwark. It works effectively to portray the metropolis’s thrusting adolescence, the ruddy heart of the most monstrous empire in history, and it lends a definite atmosphere.
That’s it. Everything else about this film is beyond rubbish. It’s just dreadfully fortunate that Downey came aboard, and that he brought his A-game, because he saves this film from itself. Witness: the story is complete and utter bollocks, and totally unworthy of anything bearing the Sherlock Holmes name. Every other character, with the possible exception of the main baddie, is either forgettably bland or just pointless, and the whole thing is littered with superficial references to the Conan Doyle oeuvre, in a way that just screams “LOOK WE GET IT, SEE HOW THIS IS DEFINATELY A SHERLOCK HOMES FILM”.
But it’s not. Not really. It’s a silly period action-adventure romp that happens to bear the name of a much beloved and respected literary institution, with an absolutely brilliant leading man who, though he takes a few liberties with the character, at least is not wiping his arse all over it. If it wasn’t for Downey, the lovely setting and the above-average action scenes, I’d be excoriating this for the piece of dogshit it most certainly, otherwise, is.