Revisiting the Guy Ritchie Holmes Films

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This past weekend, I rewatched 2009’s Sherlock Holmes and 2011’s A Game of Shadows after not doing so for a few years. These films, directed by Guy Ritchie and starred in by Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, have always been polarizing, ever since they were first announced.

When Sherlock Holmes came out in 2009, the Holmesian world looked very different. There was no Sherlock, and there was no Elementary. There were Scion societies and people who enjoyed Holmes very much, but it was not the global, Internet-era phenomenon it soon became. I saw the film in the theater having not read any canonical Holmes stories for many years, my main link to that world being the Laurie R. King Mary Russell series. Beyond her, I hardly knew such a thing as Holmes pastiche even existed.

When Sherlock hit in 2010, everything changed. By the time I saw A Game of Shadows in the theater, I had re-read the Holmes canon and written my first Holmes novel, The Detective and The Woman, and generally become astronomically more Holmes-literate than I had been. The two experiences were intensely different from one another. I saw Sherlock Holmes as a casual consumer. I saw A Game of Shadows as a superfan. Now, years later, I rewatched the two back-to-back to try to unpack my real feelings about the films. I’m going to talk about them as a unit, because that’s how I viewed them.

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The Good:

First off, I like them. I like the humor. I like the atmosphere. I like the action sequences. I enjoy the fact that for once, it’s not all serious business. I went back to them with the memory that they’re not purist adaptations and was pleasantly surprised by how close they really are in a lot of ways. If you like your Holmes straight-up serious, they’re not for you, but I like a shot of humor in mine, as did Doyle, since he wrote a huge amount of tongue-in-cheek humor into the stories that I only recognized as an adult.

Second, they’re not just for the casual viewer. Among some sectors of the Holmesian world, there’s a weird hierarchical thinking, as if “serious” adaptations like the Granada series starring Jeremy Brett are for “real” fans, while things like A Game of Shadows and Elementary are for the masses. You know what? That’s ridiculous, because it’s all subjective. I know passionate fans who love all of those and passionate fans who think no one’s ever gotten Holmes right on screen. I personally am not a fan of Elementary, but I know plenty of Holmes-literate people who can’t get enough of it; that’s true of any adaptation. We all enjoy the Holmes stories for different reasons, and taste in adaptations is no indicator of how “good” of a fan anyone is. (Well, if Asylum Holmes is your favorite, I might worry about your sanity…)

Third, the casting is fantastic. I know that a lot of people balked, and still do, at the idea of Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes, but there’s a reason the man is in possession of a Golden Globe Award for it. I have read interviews in which he talked about spending countless hour upon hour preparing, and that comes through. Of all the actors I’ve ever seen portray Holmes, his articulation and pacing of lines might be, in my opinion, the most canonical. When I’m watching him talk through deductions, I get the exact feeling I have when I read the Doyle stories. I really can’t ask for more than that. Sure, he’s a quirky Holmes, more Columbo than Poirot, but that’s definitely an interpretation that comes through in the 60 stories Doyle wrote about the character. Sometimes we read about Holmes’s urbane side; other times we see his awkward, endearing vulnerabilities, and that’s what Downey shows us. So what if he’s not tall? There’s a longstanding theater tradition of casting actors who are physically different from characters they play. It works because acting is about being something you’re not. In this case, he carries it off, if you give him a chance. Jude Law as Watson and Jared Harris as Moriarty are less-contended choices, and both give brilliant and very canonical takes on the characters.

Fourth, the action is fun. When the first film came out, a lot of people were bothered that Holmes and Watson were so action-ready. These individuals appeared to have forgotten that the canonical Holmes is a baritsu (bartitsu) and boxing expert, and Watson is a gun-toting, far-from-squeamish veteran of a very nasty war. Several of the stories contain action sequences, and it’s only cultural distillations of Holmes that have made him into a Poirot-like thinking machine who rarely moves from his easychair.

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The Ok:

First, the choice of Holmes’s sexuality is questionable. Ritchie wisely doesn’t depict anything explicit on screen, but it’s clear the detective has a history with Irene Adler. A lot of people have done this, but it’s more of a nod to cultural perception and other adaptations than the canon. Irene, I think, works as a character in her own right in these versions, but I’m not insanely enamored of giving her a specific romantic history with Holmes, though Downey and Rachel McAdams make the scenes themselves work.

Second, Irene’s connection with Moriarty is also not my favorite. Granted, in the context of the movies, making Irene the bridge to Jared Harris’s chilling Professor Moriarty was a continuity-boosting narrative choice, but I’m not usually a fan of the film penchant for taking disparate characters in a big franchise and smooshing them together with each other in slightly lazy ways that bear no resemblance to the original. It works in the context of the films, but it’s a canon difference that is always in the back of my mind when I’m watching.

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The Not-So-Great:

First, the “Ritchie Technique” is overused, especially in A Game of Shadows. If you’ve ever seen one of these films, you know what I’m talking about. There’s slo-mo, there’s freezing people on screen, there’s blowing things up-making huge things fall down-explosions and reverse explosions. I don’t dislike any of it individually, but there’s too much of it. This is more of a stylistic comment; even if these weren’t Holmes films, I would find the length and amount of artsy action sequences a bit tiring.

Second, the plots get overcomplicated. This is specifically a criticism of A Game of Shadows. I find Sherlock Holmes to be the superior film because its plot is simple and clear, the driving through-line of Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood and his nefarious deeds. Shadows gets muddled in the middle. We meet Moriarty, but then a lot of other things happen before we get back to the simple, clear issue of two equally-brilliant men facing off with each other. One of the genius things about Doyle is the clear simplicity of his mysteries that doesn’t detract at all from their cleverness. Sherlock Holmes replicated this clarity; A Game of Shadows would have benefitted from some revision to get there.

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Overall, I count myself a big fan of the Ritchie-verse. A third film is supposedly in the works (finally), and I look forward to seeing the post-hiatus conception of Downey’s Holmes and Law’s Watson. If you’re someone who dismissed these adaptations at some point on your Holmesian journey, I recommend giving them a second chance.

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Now that I’ve been part of the Holmes-verse for over three years, I’ve come to the conclusion that no adaptation is perfect, but almost all of them say something unique about the Holmes canon that others skip. The Ritchie films are not my favorite Holmes adaptations, but they’re immensely enjoyable, and they elaborate on the humor, humanity, and pure joy of Holmes in a way I’ve never seen another adaptation equal.

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(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.