A Lesser-Known Accomplishment – a review of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
In case anyone hasn’t heard, a new Sherlock Holmes movie premiered late last year. It’s flashy and showy, with daredevil pursuits and extravagant special effects. The screenplay flirts boldly and dangerously with the supernatural, yet ultimately affirms what Holmes would have called “the ordinary laws of nature.” He and Watson, played by youthful, physical actors, share an edgy, uneasy companionship often tinged with outright antagonism. Lestrade of Scotland Yard is not overlooked; his loyalty and grudging admiration seem at one point to skew to outright betrayal, before a late revelation redeems and rehabilitates him. There’s a grand climax, of course, with a heroic, hair’s-breadth avoidance of the blowing-up and doing-in of one or more hallowed structures of Victorian London. Oh, and one more thing . . . none of this has anything to do with Hollywood, nor with Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law et al.
For this is the latest product of The Asylum, a British studio which appears to specialize in a genre which has come to be known as “mockbusters,” straight-to-video releases actually produced concurrently with major studio projects and designed to capitalize on their popularity. A list of The Asylum’s most recent triumphs is amusing and insightful—it includes The Da Vinci Treasure, Transmorphers, Sunday School Musical, and 2012 Doomsday. This newest endeavor, officially titled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, comes replete with dinosaurs, sea monsters, robots, and flying machines. It might elicit guffaws or perhaps indifference from the new legions of Guy Ritchie patrons hoping for a decade of glitzy, big box-office sequels; and icy disdain from Doyle purists, far fewer in number but doggedly steadfast in their standards and expectations.
It behooves both groups to pause, take a deep breath, and see this movie, now in general release on DVD. For it is well-acted, capably directed, cleverly scripted (notwithstanding a few loose ends), and maintains high production values throughout. Special effects are ambitious, yet usually convincing; convoluted plot elements are ironed out and resolved. Cinematography is poised and restrained, and lighting is smooth and even and particularly nuanced in several indoor scenes. And the monsters and humanoids which intermittently prowl before the camera’s eye present no greater challenge to the viewer’s credulity than many other preposterous adversaries confronted by the great detective over the now century-long history of Holmesian cinema. It is unfair to say that Conan Doyle would never have dreamed of such things—those who know his work have reason to suspect that he probably did.
For her opening scene, director Rachel Lee Goldenberg establishes a darkly distinguished historical present—the London blitz of December 1940. An aged, debilitated Watson (those who pore over the Doyle canon to calculate imagined real-world timelines would put him in his late 80s at this point) watches the conflagration from his window and remarks that it is the second time he has seen London in flames. Fearing that his days are numbered, he decides to confide to a pretty nursemaid what he calls his friend’s “greatest and least-known accomplishment.” She promises faithfully to record it, and the stage is set.
The first flashback scene—not at all what viewers might expect—shows a ship at sea, after dark. The subtitle caption reveals the location—the English Channel—and the time, 1882. (Again, canon auditors will note that this would have been very early in the Holmes-Watson collaboration). Soon there is a panic aboard, and for good reason: the ship is brought down by what appears to be a set of giant, black tentacles. Goldenberg did her own editing, and with cinematographer Adam Silver she gives us only half-second, “teaser” glimpses of these, but a carefully assembled montage of desperate lurching and scrambling amply establishes the horror.
The scene shifts again, this time to the dim, yellowish confines of an autopsy room, where Watson (Gareth David-Lloyd) is hard at work. Enter Holmes, played by the talented newcomer Ben Snyder—too short (Doyle described Holmes as “rather over six feet”) but otherwise perfectly cast. Thanks to Holmes’s powers of observation and deduction, a cause of death is determined in seconds, Watson is spared the irksome task of earning his living, and the two are off to interview the sole survivor of the shipwreck, soon to be joined by the familiar Inspector Lestrade (William Huw).
The unfortunate midshipman gives his true account of the tragedy and is summarily judged mad (by all but Holmes); Lestrade, who seems not quite himself, makes a brief, mysterious reference to Holmes’s brother; and Holmes determines that the lost cargo is nothing less than patent gold (voiced impeccably by Snyder, with a long a and a hard t), bound for Her Majesty’s treasury.
Next, in a sequence which is heart-stopping but entirely unnecessary, the three are off to the cliffs bordering the Channel, where Watson, with the aid of a frayed rope and an inept guide, and hoping to catch sight of the wreckage, scales down steep, jagged rock while Holmes puffs his pipe and meditates. Watson does spot what first appears to be another survivor trying to swim ashore; then a foundering corpse. In any case, a broken rope soon brings an end to the adventure, presumably to the unfortunate in the water (who is never mentioned again), and very nearly to Watson. If any of this advances the story, it is not clear how.
Luckily, a segue quickly shifts our focus again, this time to a dim Whitechapel brothel. A timid young man and a seasoned professional have just come to terms (they call each other “John” and Miss Pinchcock—really!), but the consummation of their contract is cruelly constrained by the emergence of one of the movie’s sleeper stars—a room-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Back at Baker Street, Holmes and Watson, apparently still pettish over their cliff debacle, munch breakfast scones and muse over the sensational headlines out of Whitechapel. Holmes, known in the canon to abjure exercise for its own sake, nevertheless consents to join Watson for his morning constitutional, and the two presently find themselves in a spacious park, surprisingly uncrowded for what must have been central London. Their tranquility is short-lived, however, for the T-Rex soon manifests itself again, first through footprints and finally another full-blown appearance, though claiming no apparent victims this time.
Holmes and Watson, separated during the chase (another Silver-Goldenberg tour-de-force), reunite at what first appears to be a rural cottage, jarringly out of place in an urban landscape, but what turns out to be a pump house servicing the park’s fountain. Lestrade turns up again, too, and for some reason, appears to mistrust Watson, or at least not to recognize him. “What has done this? I’ve got to report this mess,” a visibly shaken Lestrade declares. But there is no mess, only an emptied-out hut; and it is not immediately clear what “this” is—we eventually infer, with Holmes’s help, that the pump apparatus has been carried off. And now, we sense that Holmes has linked all of this to the Whitechapel monster and to the shipwreck. This scene, understated on the surface, is a crucial one; it should form the springboard from expository foreplay to the very pulse of the story line. Screenwriter Paul Bales seems to have sensed this, and striven to walk the fine line between setting up the mystery and revealing too much too soon. Ultimately, he may not reveal quite enough.
Still, life goes on, and Watson, back in his surgery, is visited by a comely young lady, one Anesadora Ivory (Elizabeth Arends), in the company of her “uncle” (Dominic Keating), who is in constant pain, she says, and for whom she implores Watson to supply morphine. Influenced by her obvious charms (Goldenberg has evidently bought into the popular but assailable Watson-as-ladies’-man motif), he readily complies, and wastes no time in making an opera date with the pretty niece. This is not to be, however; Holmes reaches Watson by telephone, a very recent innovation in 1882, and summons him to Whitechapel. Holmes is hot on the trail now. He has picked up a scrap of rubber back at the pump house, and is convinced that the T-Rex is nothing more than the carefully crafted product of an insidious scientific brain. “Not of this world . . . ,” Watson fears. “Very much of this world,” Holmes confirms.
What follows is a romp through London’s industrial districts, accompanied again by the increasingly mysterious Lestrade. First is a visit to a copper warehouse, for Holmes knows that its powers of conductivity could help to animate the monster. Then to a rubber factory, with the T-Rex (or perhaps a brother) lurking within, just as Holmes had foreseen, observing that copper and rubber were needed for “something bigger;” and when the reluctant, recalcitrant proprietor is unfortunately immolated by the provoked beast, Holmes deftly extracts something from the poor man’s charred clothing, and the focus shifts again—this time to Hellsmouth, where Holmes, we learn, had grown up, conveniently spending idle childhood hours roaming the hillsides and, of course, amassing useful knowledge of the geology of the region. The fragment pilfered from the dead man’s pocket had been a rock which, Holmes explains, was indigenous to that area, so it is here that the cradle of the mystery must lie.
Once in Hellsmouth, it takes Holmes and Watson only moments to breach the walls of an ostensibly abandoned castle, where they encounter the now-familiar T-Rex, inert this time; huge, black forms which resemble the shipwreck tentacles; toxic gas-jets mounted in the walls; and, on a pedestal in the center of a large room, a humanoid robot, remarkably strong and agile, which Watson inadvertently activates. It turns out to have the face and mind of the morphine-crazed “uncle,” and the niece-companion also soon appears.
“Uncle” proudly explains that he controls the robot’s movements entirely with his brain. “Neuro-transgeneration” exclaims Watson, showing an impressive acquaintance with the avant-garde science of his day. “Neuro-regeneration,” corrects “Uncle,” lending a plausible sci-fi spin to the whole sequence of events. The project, it seems, has been funded by the plundered gold from the shipwreck—and/or other shipwrecks and similar grand larcenies—timelines here are more than a little confusing, and Bales is going to need more than a little indulgence.
But there’s more: “Uncle” is really none other than Thorpe Holmes, Sherlock’s wayward brother, once a crack detective himself, now turned evil and cynical by a paralyzing bullet allegedly fired, whether in recklessness or treachery, by his erstwhile partner, the stalwart Lestrade, who now re-emerges as Thorpe’s helpless captive, his foreboding of such a fate having accounted for his strange behavior.
And still more: Anesadora, now fully endowed with malevolence, shoots and apparently kills Sherlock Holmes (!), and, for reasons all her own, deploys a less-than-lethal canister device to neutralize Watson.
And a note on a legend: In his new robotic identity, “Uncle” Thorpe Holmes was mostly metallic, and may have perpetrated many of his off-script crimes in the guise of one “Spring-Heeled Jack,” a figure from British folklore probably still familiar to U.K. audiences today. “Jack” first became the scourge of London’s slums in the 1830s. Less deadly and palpable than his later-day namesake Jack the Ripper, he would still terrorize the population—and mostly young women—by his audacious and vulgar overtures; then amaze onlookers with his swift escapes, often involving superhuman leaps and bounds. The Spring-Heeled Jack myth is not invoked directly in the script, but the film draws on it to good effect.
There is little more to reveal. Only the climax remains, but it is a spectacular one in every sense of the term. Thorpe arms Anesadora with a time bomb intended for Buckingham Palace, and sends her off on the London train; then mans the controls of a giant flying dragon, another product of his metallurgical expertise and scientific genius, with the bound Lestrade, to whom the whole calamitous scheme is to be attributed, at his side.
Sherlock, meanwhile, has recovered from the shooting, saved by the tobacco tin in his breast pocket. Quickly dispatching the also-recovered Watson to London to deal with Anesadora, he commandeers a balloon-helicopter conveyance he discovers nearby, presumably still another of Thorpe’s engineering feats, and flies off in pursuit of the all-destroying dragon—remember the aged Watson’s line about London burning?
In what Conan Doyle may have called a retrospection, the fate of London is determined, at least for the present; Lestrade escapes and is exonerated through Holmes’s entirely believable analysis of bullet striations; Miss Ivory, shall we say, reveals her inner self; and Holmes confesses his true kinship to the nefarious Thorpe. The 1940 Watson, having unburdened himself of the long-withheld narrative, may happily give up the ghost, and his nursemaid (named Miss Hudson, incidentally), faithful to the end and beyond, is a mute and uncomprehending witness to the movie’s final twist—but the alert viewer sees all, and may hopefully await an Asylum sequel—probably not featuring Brad Pitt as Professor Moriarty, but a worthy sequel nonetheless, and with a very menacing foe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes may not earn the unanimous respect of Sherlockian purists; nor, surely, the box office revenues of its richer and more celebrated Hollywood counterpart. But it is no joke, and more than a spoof. Rachel Lee Goldenberg, with her talented cast and crew, has presented not a masterpiece, but surely a commendable homage which will stand honorably alongside its fellows within the hundred-year pantheon of Sherlock Holmes in cinema.
Review by Little Jimmy Briggs, Senior Staff Writer, McMurdo’s Camp, at the lumber camps of Michigan and Wisconsin February 2010