Monday, 18 January 2010

Holmes improvement

On the whole, I'm in favour of reboots. Often the cultural drift in society results in a movie or book or TV show that started out fresh and exciting starting to feel out of touch. It certainly happened with Star Trek - which, if not actually dying, looked like a franchise suffering from Alzheimer's under Brannon Braga and Rick Berman but was gloriously rejuvenated last year by J J Abrams and his team. And they did that by going back to the original series and figuring, "If Gene Roddenberry had launched this in 2009, how would he have pitched it to get the equivalent effect that in had on audiences in 1966?" In the same way, an English translation of War & Peace, say, can always be contemporary, but the prose must seem increasingly archaic to a reader in the original Russian (and French).

That's why a reboot can be so effective. It's like a new translation.

Last week Roz and I went to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie. I was a big Sherlock Holmes fan about the same time I was watching original Star Trek, so I could easily be defensive about such a major reboot. Yet... a few years ago at Christmas the BBC broadcast a Holmes TV movie with Rupert Everett. And it was perfectly good, and Everett was excellent in the part. But it all felt rather too cosy, a comfortable mystery to watch when stuffed with turkey and mince pies, and I got to thinking that's probably not the effect the Holmes stories would have had on Victorian readers. Because when Holmes went over Reichenbach, the public outcry was immense and men went about in black armbands - and, well, yeah, fans will be fans, but you don't ever get that level of excitement from a cosy little detective drama about ticking clocks and puffing pipes.

The new movie tackles the so-what problem head on. Holmes was always meant to be a flamboyent, brilliant, unconventional and slightly disreputable central character, and who plays that combination better than Robert Downey Jr? I grant you this is not the Holmes of traditional dramas: the tall, thin, loftily commanding figure as drawn by Sidney Paget. And yet this Holmes is convincingly a genius, a misfit, one who is a master of all the facts but fares less adroitly in polite society.

Jude Law's Watson is a stronger character than he comes across in the stories - as he needs to be on screen, where the personal reserve we can accept in a literary first-person narrator would not only come across as blandness, but would weaken our impression of Holmes's genius too. And this Watson indulges in little bits of bad behaviour too, though unlike Holmes he recognizes the very specific contract under which Victorian society granted men a degree of licence to do so.

So those elements work, and the relationship between the two is sparky and engaging. It's more of a modern bromance than a Victorian friendship, true, but in a toss-up between historical accuracy and emotional veracity, a good storyteller should always plump for the latter.

Best of all, though, this is no sedate whodunnit to be mulled over in a cosy drawing room. It's a cocaine-shot-in-the-arm of a movie: visually thrilling with some fantastic set-pieces, driven like a hansom down narrow streets at high speed, written and directed with real verve and energy. Oh, and like all the great Sherlock Holmes mysteries, it steers a course very close to the supernatural without ever quite losing sight of the beacon of rational explanation.

Currently it's taken about a tenth of Avatar's revenue at box office (which is one of those things that makes me feel like giving up writing fiction, frankly) so you should get out there and see it on the big screen while you can. I'm going to be buying the DVD too, you bet, but this is a movie that merits the full cinematic experience.


  1. Terrific film, I want to see it again right now. I'm struggling through a revise and seeing SH pitched me out of a rut and showed me how to give my story life and relevance.

  2. Not to get too fixated on money, but SH has now made $320m in three weeks against a production budget of $90m, so it's far from a failure and we'll surely get a sequel. But it's very depressing to think that it would have made twice as much if Holmes and Watson had blathered on about pseudo-mystical traditions with lots of apostrophes in them, if the story and characterization had all been at the level that would entertain a three-year-old child, and crucially if the characters had been ten feet tall with blue skin and big ol' soulful eyes. Western civilization has become infantilized.

  3. I always need a cup of tea. Milk, no sugar and seven percent cocaine, please.