Review: Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows
December 2011. The newest Hollywood version of Sherlock Holmes hit the big screen this month, on the 16thinst. Robert
Downey as Holmes, Jude Law as Dr. Watson, and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler are back in their original roles. New are Jared Harris as Prof. Moriarty, Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, and Noomi Rapace as a gipsy fortune-teller named Sim.
Is the new movie any good? Well, yes, we guess it’s OK. We thought it was quite an improvement over the first Downey-as-Holmes movie in terms of entertainment value. If you are a Holmes purist, go buy a set of Jeremy Brett DVD’s and enjoy the best and most realistic presentation of Sherlock Holmes outside of Doyle’s stories themselves. But if you can tolerate modern presentations of useless violence, impossibly fast action scenes, dull slow-motion and stop-action gimmickry, childish homosexual references, and an overly ambitious crime plot, go see this movie. It has a number of attributes that are not unworthy of your attention.
The Characters. In the very beginning, Watson was busy at his type-writer, in his role as Holmes’ Boswell. But as the action picked up, he was in the middle of everything, Holmes’ able friend and assistant for at least one more case. He got married early on, but Mary nee Morstan, his wife, was removed from the action as it got under way. Then, at the fini, Watson was completing the story, which is loosely based on The Final Problem (FINA). There was a train ride to the channel, a murderous encounter or two with Moriarty and his henchmen, a crossing to the continent, lost luggage, and ultimately a wrestling match in Switzerland featuring a plunge into an abyss. These events were somewhat less cerebral than in the original story.
The Adler character was back, presumably to keep her around for any new sequel, as she was present only at the beginning of the movie. She was sweet on Holmes, was working for Moriarty, and was removed from the plot early and did not do anything significant, nor did she reappear.
Mycroft Holmes had a major role in the adventure. He was portrayed as somewhat less lethargic than normal, but still more of a thinker than an action figure. Stephen Fry, the actor selected for the part was perfect, and fit our mental image of Mycroft exactly. He was featured in an entirely gratuitous and comedic nude scene involving Mary (who was not nude), but other than that it was nice to see a character we never got enough of in Doyle’s originals be brought to life so well.
The other newcomer to the movie series, Moriarty, was equally well-done. As played by Harris he was evil, smart, and intellectually challenging to Holmes. The character was played as we have always imagined him, cunning, unpredictable, civil but irrationally nasty, and capable of large-scale deviltry.
And Colonel Sebastian Moran was there too, as Moriarty’s high-paid henchman, just like in real life. He only worked the really important jobs, and utilized a collection of deadly poison darts and cleverly-designed small arms, probably made by a blind German mechanic.
The gipsy fortune-teller, Sim, was involved in most of the action sequences, but in fact, was kind of an accessory to the plot and not really needed to present the story. But she was a good addition, and cleaned up real nice when presented to society away from gipsy camp.
Real Holmes Stuff. Like the first Downey portrayal, the movie did not attempt to portray Holmes realistically, but instead, as a sort of Victorian Jack Sparrow or Indiana Jones. While we have never personally visited Victorian London, we believe the movie-makers did a good job of presenting it just as dirty, dingy, noisy, and crowded as it must have really been.
Some things they got right. Holmes was a master of disguise, and his disguises in this movie were over-the-top. Drag Queen, Old Chinaman, member of the upper-crust political scene, he did it all, and also some maybe-too-clever “urban camouflage”. You’ve got to see it to believe it. Long johns as you never imagined them.
Like the first Downey Holmes movie, some quotes from The Canon were sprinkled around to add authenticity. This time, Holmes said in a conversation with Moriarty, “Let me pay you one (complement) in return when I say that if I were assured of the former eventuality (Holmes’ destruction of Moriarty) I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept the latter (Holmes’ own destruction)”. Right out of FINA. The Reichenbach Falls were included as well. Instead of being alongside a precarious path, their river flowed through a big tunnel under a castle, and spurted out and tumbled over the cliff and down into the valley far below. The final action scenes in the movie took place at the castle, where Holmes and Moriarty had their encounter on a balcony.
The Plot. (spoilers within) Europe and the U.S. were plagued with problems for some big industrialists. Killed, blown up, disappeared, etc. Some of their holdings dropped in value, and in hidden transactions were snapped up by the Professor and his backers, who then owned or held large investments in manufacturers of arms, steel, footwear, and cotton, all of which were in line for immense gain in the event of a major war. Moriarty understood economics as well as he understood asteroid dynamics, and realized that once you control the supply, all you need to attain great wealth is to increase the demand. With Europe of 1891 astir with international intrigue, he planned to start a war and achieve those aims. Holmes had been investigating and had stolen a coded record book, figured out what was going on, and was trying to thwart Moriarty’s plans.
Watson was planning to get married to Mary Morstan, his dream girl from The Sign of the Four (SIGN), and Holmes arranged a wild stag party at an establishment the night before the wedding. It was full of acrobatic evildoers and other skilled thugs, but nobody important met their doom. Also present was Sim, the gipsy fortune-teller who tagged along for most of the rest of the movie. (We were disappointed Sim was not played by the Voodoo swamp-woman with black lips in Pirates of the Caribbean, but personal fetishes aside, Ms. Rapace did a nice job.)
For the wedding the following day, Holmes got the hung-over Watson presentable (to a certain extent), Watson and Mary were married at a pleasant country church, and headed off by train to Brighton for their honeymoon. Moriarty had promised collateral damage (to Watson) in his battle with Holmes. Realizing the danger, Holmes threw Mary off the train into a slow-moving river where she was fished out by a well-prepared Mycroft and his helper in a rowboat.
On the train, Holmes and Watson were attacked by more bad guys, but prevailed again, as you would expect. Then on to France and a gipsy encampment, where with the help of Sim, Holmes caught on to a remarkable plot involving a plastic surgery-altered face on a new villain, and zeroed in on a large munitions and armament plant in Germany just across the border from Strasbourg. A visit to the plant confirmed the theory of Moriarty the arms-merchant. After departing, the little group was chased away through the woods with Colonel Sebastian Moran blasting away at them with every sort of weapon from poison darts to heavy artillery. (Typically, Hollywood demonstrates its unfamiliarity with artillery. People running experience a shell exploding a few feet away, fall down, and jump up and begin running again. In real life they would just lie there waiting with infinite patience for the Graves Registration crew to come along and try to identify them.) But after a harrowing chase through the woods, the group managed to board a train to safety. Holmes had been horribly injured, having been hung up and dragged around by a meat-hook in his shoulder. A little blood was shed and some pain experienced, but skilled doctoring by Watson fixed him up.
Then on to Switzerland and the castle at the falls. A peace conference among major nations was planned, but a bad guy with the surgically altered face planned an assassination to trigger World War I about 23 years early. Holmes acted cleverly and decisively, averted the crime, but was wrestled off the balcony and fell to certain doom into the abyss with Moriarty.
Near the end of the movie, Watson was back home typing the story. He ended with his famous line, “ . . . the best and finest man whom I have ever known.” then typed “THE END” at the bottom. Holmes was present, sneaked in, and cleverly placed a question mark after “THE END”.
There was no explanation of how he had managed to escape from his plunge into the abyss, or whether Moriarty also escaped. Do we smell another sequel here? You never know; it could happen. And no time for a hiatus, either. Or will there be a Hound of the Baskervilles next? The time is right.
(Note for movie-goers who are not deeply into the original Holmes: In the story The Final Problem, Doyle the author killed off Sherlock Holmes in 1893 because he was tired of writing about him and thought his creative genius would be better used in more serious writings. Clamor from the public, probably combined with a realization that writing Holmes stories was the most lucrative endeavor in which he had ever engaged, led Doyle to bring Holmes back from the dead in the story The Adventure of the Empty House (EMPT) published in 1903. Among Holmes fans, the 10-year gap is referred to as “the great hiatus”. Prior to resurrecting Holmes, Doyle published a Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles (HOUN) in 1901, set in a time frame before Holmes’ presumed death. So logically, the next Holmes/Downey movie should be The Hound of the Baskervilles.
And if you are a movie-goer not deeply into Sherlock Holmes, this is a good time and place to experience the real thing. Look for Doyle’s Works near the bottom of the sidebar on the right, in Sherlockian Links. For The Final Problem, the story Game of Shadows is based upon, look in Doyle’s Works, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.) If you like it, why not start at the beginning, and read A Study in Scarlet (STUD)? Find out how Holmes and Dr. Watson got together in the first place.)
Ephemerality: At one point, Holmes addressed Dr. Watson as “John”. This level of familiarity would have been foreign to the two. Holmes always addressed Watson as either “Dr. Watson” or “Watson”. Then at several times, using the familiarity enjoyed by family, Mycroft Holmes addressed his younger brother as “Shirley” or maybe spelled “Sherlie”. Sounding just like an older brother might tease his sibling.
Early in the movie Watson was chided about his scarf, a maroon, blue, and white job knitted for him by Mary, his fiance. The scarf popped up several times in the course of the movie. One of the gipsies wore it on the mission to Germany. Then it was back as Holmes’ bandage/sling after the meat-hook incident.
Conclusion. We must give credit to the movie-makers who in this case overcame the common tendency in which the sequel is inferior to the original. If they can keep rolling, the next one will be even better. Remember, there have been lots and lots of Sherlock Holmes movies. Hardly any of them stuck real close to the original. And some, but not all, were pretty good. A Game of Shadows is one of the pretty good ones.
Review by Matilda, in the lumber camps of Michigan, December 2011.