Fixed in a state of perpetual motion, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes takes a working-class approach to the distinguished detective, balancing his investigative acumen with a visceral physicality and outsider mentality. The intellect is present, if a bit muted, muffled beneath the thunderous blow of fists on the soundtrack and procession of tracking shots, sensory elements that add sophistication to the salvo of on-screen dustups. Holmes’ newfound passion for pugilism may be more for Ritchie’s benefit than our own, but who am I to deny a director his fetishes, especially ones handled with such elan and conviction.
Embracing intoxication unlike any Holmes before him, Robert Downey Jr. portrays his sleuth as a bit of a degenerate, happily wallowing in a filthy study, wantonly under the influence of a bevy of anonymous substances. His intemperate state lends a shiftiness to his eyeballs, each darting glance collecting evidence like a photographic lens, compiling data for use in the near future. Slow-motion visual representations of Holmes’ thoughts preface his actions, primarily indiscriminate beatings, orchestrated by his mind and accomplished, seconds later, by the sinewy muscles of his chest and forearms.
His cavalier nature and propensity for roughhousing put a strain on his partnership with Watson (Jude Law), their cohabitation terminated after Holmes’ boorish dinner behavior ends in wasted wine and a furious fiancée. It’s not impossible to imagine this petulance as a way to disguise homosexual desires, especially when taking into consideration Holmes’ capricious relationship with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a counterspy regarded as his “beard” and halfheartedly depicted as an ex-lover. Even if Holmes isn’t using her presence as camouflage, she’s certainly out of his league, poisoning his wine on a lark and gleefully cracking walnuts as proxies for his testicles.
Holmes fares better in the field than he does in the boudoir, apprehending Blackwood (Mark Strong), London’s preeminent warlock, in the midst of a ritual sacrifice and city-wide manhunt. Aiming to bring the nation to its knees with his blend of “practical magic,” Blackwood predates fascism, but bears a striking resemblance to a uniformed Nazi, his slicked hair and leather-collared jacket mimicking their rigid silhouette. Ideologically, he espouses Satanic dogma, at least a fictionalized version, using ostensible supernatural faculties to kill in a clandestine manner and survive a neck-snapping at the gallows’ pole. Regardless of communal superstition, Holmes remains pragmatic, deriding “modern religious fervor” and probing the alleged resurrection as a mystery to be exposed only through logic and keen detection.
The satisfaction Sherlock Holmes gathers from the “thrill of the macabre” is shared by Sarah Greenwood’s production design, the recesses of which are stuffed with potions, vermin and varied necrophrenalia. One especially handy gadget appears to be an modified tuning fork, capable of shooting propulsive currents of electricity that catapult Holmes’ adversaries through load-bearing walls and wooden door frames. Though the foley work dwells on the crackle of each broken limb, the trading of punches carries the rhythm of dance and rarely reflects the actual consequences of physical violence. Having said that, this fixation on fisticuffs does little to move the narrative forward and frequently extends well beyond its shelf life.
Guy Ritchie’s visual compositions are far more expressive and integral, signifying danger through the spiraling chasms of sewer channels and serpentine metal of scaffolding. His use of slow-motion is just as vital, displaying the ripple of fabric and sonic destruction caused by the detonation of dynamite, amplifying the impact by retarding the progression of time. Filmmaking by brute force works on an aesthetic level, but breaking chronology to double back and reveal obscured details seems meretricious, functioning only as an exercise in style and damaging the integrity of the puzzle at the film’s core. The only rehash that serves a purpose is Holmes’ concluding speech, an exhaustive cataloging of every esoteric image spied by the camera eye, left nearly forgotten, called to mind to clarify the untold deductions of the investigation and validate Ritchie’s muscular direction. The synopsis is wordy, but the thesis is cogent, dismantling the influence of the supernatural and untenable nature of spirituality through critical thinking and reason.
Sherlock Holmes (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2009)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Written by Arthur Conan Doyle (characters), Michael Robert Johnson (screenplay and screen story), Anthony Peckham (screenplay), Simon Kinberg (screenplay) and Lionel Wigram (screen story)
Photographed by Philippe Rousselot