Despite efforts to divorce its story from Arthur Conan Doyle’s oeuvre, even politely stating a lack of affiliation in the opening credits, Young Sherlock Holmes preserves the spirit of Doyle’s characters, fostering an intimate relationship between the adolescent leads and using deductive reasoning as the backbone of their forthcoming professional partnership. The core attributes are deep-rooted, regardless of the reconstituted origin story and multitude of practical effects, which act as a pleasant diversion, but produce a distracting incongruity when paired with Victorian set design. Nevertheless, the alliance between Albion pomp and American excess routinely prevails, bolstered by unexpected melancholic notes and lived-in performances that could sway even the most obstinate purist.
The setting is a snow-bound London, frigid and inhospitable, in spite of the flaxon beams of moonlight pouring over the narrow streets and illuminating the intricately-painted backdrops. The interiors of an eatery are cozy by comparison, warmed by steaming platters and the orange glow of lantern sconces. A modish middle-aged man, emanating an air of high breeding, ducks into the roadside café, evading an unseen stalker with an antique blow gun. Street scenes of their foot chase are shot from above and below, avoiding faces and benefiting from the jagged contours of brick buildings and stony paths. The resulting homicide is far less subtle, as our dignified patron, poisoned by an airborne dart, hallucinates that his pheasant dinner has reanimated and attempts to throttle the flailing bird.
The animatronic work aims to startle the film’s juvenile audience, but the overindulgence clashes with the refined atmosphere, cheapening an otherwise stimulating pursuit. The second murder setpiece cultivates a more harmonious fusion, laying animated cells atop live action footage and realistically extracting a knight from an ornate stained-glass window. As the belligerent swordsman approaches the envenomed vicar cowering before him, his flimsy glass frame quivers with each step, acting as a merger of scientific logic and the brazenly fantastic.
The precocious Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe), barely in his teen years, pores over the details of these “suicides” in the Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, drawing parallels between the upbringing and social sect of the recently departed pair. Utilizing investigative skills honed by schoolyard riddles and competitive fencing, Holmes treats his new bunkmate, the shy John Watson (Alan Cox), as a dry run for his first case, uncovering his backstory by scrutinizing his manner of dress and stout build. The invasion of privacy is a way for the greenhorn to build confidence and resolve, traits he’ll desperately need to attract the attention of Elizabeth (Sophie Ward), the gamine niece of campus mad-scientist and fictional first in flight, Rupert T. Waxflatter (Nigel Stock).
Bestrewn with tools, trinkets and knicknacks, Waxflatter’s attic laboratory is the summation of Executive Producer Steven Spielberg’s Reagan-era aesthetic, a two-pronged approach that promoted innocence and awe through sensory overload, while subtextually addressing the forthcoming compromises of adulthood. The agony of divorce, illness and poverty that swam beneath the surface in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial are far more pronounced in Chris Columbus’ script, shedding light on Holmes’ monomaniacal focus on detection through an examination of the series of death and abandonment that stretches back to his early childhood. The film’s best metaphor directly follows Holmes’ expulsion from school and Waxflatter’s murder, as the young intellectual hides in the comfort of his mentor’s attic, his fear of the maturity that accompanies disappointment and loss driving him into a place of safety and boundless imagination.
The exhilaration of the case, which shoves the pair down a rabbit hole of Egyptian pseudohistory, subterranean witchcraft and capitalistic corruption, is as much an entertaining distraction for us as it is for Sherlock Holmes. A climactic hallucination brings both parties back to reality, as the budding detective, intoxicated by a poison-tipped dart, mentally retreats back to his childhood manor. Veiled in onyx and lit only by flickering, cobwebbed candelabra, Sherlock’s mother sobs in a rocking chair as his combative father, standing hearthside, bellows angrily at his inquisitive son for revealing his adulterous nature. Exposing the faults of our progenitors and heroes can be weighty material for younger viewers, but this poignant strand and its tragic coda masterfully shade in a complex character, exhibiting his single-minded obsession with investigation as an enduring defense mechanism.
Young Sherlock Holmes (Paramount Pictures, 1985)
Directed by Barry Levinson
Written by Arthur Conan Doyle (characters) and Chris Columbus (screenplay)
Photographed by Stephen Goldblatt