Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Curious Incident of the Woman Who Changed Her Mind

In your travels through life, if you are suddenly beset upon by an unemployed game show host who asks who, in your opinion, is the most influential and durable character in English Literature, I would be very surprised if you didn't answer Sherlock Holmes. Of course, a pass will be given if you are one of those people who believes Holmes was a real person. You can talk all you want of Poe's C. August Dupin, but it's Conan Doyle's 1887 creation who captured the world's imagination and never let go. We cannot get enough of the Victorian era consulting detective whose popularity eventually came to so bedevil Sir Arthur. The character whose basis is four novels and 56 short stories took on a life of his own. People who have never read a Conan Doyle story know of 221B Baker Street, of the devoted chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, of Mrs. Hudson and Professor Moriarty.

For over a century the character of Sherlock Holmes has been subject to uncountable adaptions, homages and pastiches of varying success and quality. Actors as diverse as Peter Cushing and Matt Frewer have assayed the role. Some such as Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, despite their wide-ranging careers, are indelibly associated with Sherlock Holmes. One of the first and best to tie his name and image with that of Holmes was the American actor William Gillette (pictured left) who, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's permission, adapted Sherlock Holmes for the stage in 1899. While Gillette was working on the project and appearing on stage in San Francisco a hotel fire destroyed both the original Conan Doyle manuscript from which he was working and Gillette's own finished play. He patiently rewrote the entire play which is a lesson for those of us stymied by computer crashes. It was Gillette who gave Holmes his deerstalker cap and magnifying glass, and the line "Elementary, my dear fellow." William Gillette played Holmes for over 30 seasons on the stage and gave his last performance for radio at the age of 79. Orson Welles is quoted as saying  "It is not enough to say that William Gillette resembles Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.” It is not a stretch to imagine that Arthur Wontner and Basil Rathbone must have seen Gillette and been influenced by his interpretation.  Surely Rathbone's performance on film and radio influenced future performers.

The mania for all things Holmesian continues into the 21st century. Fans of television mysteries see the clear line from 1880s stories printed in The Strand magazine to David Shore's House, MD, Bruno Heller's The Mentalist and Steven Moffat's Sherlock. My book shelves contain not only my annotated and illustrated original Holmes stories, but many of the homages and imaginings of other writers from Eve Titus' Basil of Baker Street, August Derleth's Solar Pons, Steve Hockensmith's Holmes on the Range series, Laurie R. King's engrossing Mary Russell novels, and more.

A couple of years ago when Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law was announced, I was intrigued because I am one of those who can't get enough of Holmes. However, I frequent certain areas of the internet (the IMDb) which suddenly and frightfully became a breeding ground of Holmes purists who were aghast at the thought of the movie. I am someone who didn't object when an animated Holmes was frozen and brought back to life in the future in Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. I have no purist scruples because it has been proven that Holmes is untouchable. Therefore, I was keen on the project until I saw the trailer. My trailer judgements are swift and irrevocable. Strike one, the cinematography had an annoying greyish tint which I supposed was to accommodate CGI. Strike two, there was no discernible plot. Strike three, an alarming amount of slow-mo and an over-reliance on smart-assery. The entire thing left me with an overwhelming sense of "meh". I sighed and dismissed the movie from my universe.

The Harry Potter movies are a tradition the family shares at the theatre so early last autumn I made a rare trip to a movie theatre. It is a rare trip nowadays because I resent the cost, the piped in pop music I spend most of my life trying to avoid, and the commercials. Time was you went to the movies because there were no commercials, but that pleasure can now only be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. I wept my way through the trailer for War Horse, much to the amusement of my loved ones, and next came a sequel to Sherlock Holmes. I steeled myself for the onslaught of "meh" which did not come. I was amused. I was intrigued. How could this be so? I puzzled and puzzled till my puzzler was sore. Then I thought of something I hadn't before. What if Sherlock Holmes (2009) wasn't a bore? What if Sherlock Holmes (2009), perhaps, was a little bit more?

A couple of weeks before Christmas after a hard day of shopping, I gave Sherlock Holmes (2009) a chance. The family is well aware of my intractable trailer judgments so I bore with good grace my daughter's smirk and raised eyebrow. She does it because she can and because nothing is more annoying to someone who can't raise one eyebrow and whose smirk looks like a grimace of pain.

Back to the movie. The darn thing did have a plot. A wackadoodle peer played by Mark Strong was manipulating a secret society and fear of the supernatural in a plan to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Cool! Who else but a wackadoodle private consulting detective could defeat such a villain?

My eyes became accustomed to the grey tinted cinematography which may have been to accommodate CGI and might also have been to indicate a smokey, foggy London. At any rate, after a while I stopped wishing someone would squeegy the screen.

Robert Downey Jr. rarely puts a foot wrong as an actor for me, and his Holmes continued in that vein. Jude Law exemplified the perfect Watson. The characters are so firmly established in our imaginations that we had no need to go back and be introduced to them, there they were, fully formed waiting for us to enjoy the adventure. The brilliant and arrogant Holmes, both admirable and aggravating, and the loyal and understanding Watson. Dr. Watson is the friend we all should be or should have - someone who puts up with us.

If there must be a woman in the picture, and there must, then it must the "the" woman and it was. Canadian gal Rachel McAdams played the adventuress Irene Adler as if she were the long lost grandmother of Emma Peel of The Avengers. The spirited action worked in the style of the story told. We even had a peek at a mysterious professor pulling strings from the shadows. Oooh!

I enjoyed an amusing bit wherein Holmes would imagine his next move prior to carrying it out. It was clever and not overdone. All the plot lines tied up nicely at the end for a satisfying movie experience. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire romp and look forward to the sequel. I am only concerned about my heretofore reliable trailer judgment. What else have I been missing out on? Perhaps that movie with the boxing robot - but, no. Let's not be silly.


  1. A great post, but I'm afraid I'm sticking with your trailer judgement, C.W. I rented the movie and couldn't get past the first ten or fifteen minutes.

    But that's not to say I won't rent the next one - this trailer is actually much better than the first.

    Hope springs eternal around these parts.

    Yes, I am a Holmes purist - sort of. But I never say never. :)

  2. CW, if you enjoyed the first Robert Downey Holmes film, you will enjoy its sequel. Like you, I think Downey is a fine Holmes, even though it's a different take (but nothing wrong with that!). I find Guy Ritchie's (still the former Mr. Madonna) direction to be distracting and there's an explosive chase in the sequel that goes on far too long. Still, the movie works nicely when Holmes is having chats with Professor Moriarty. NTW, I never trust trailers. By nature, they are sneaky...

  3. I've not seen the Downey movies. Like you, I am skeptical of newer adapations of our beloved Holmes. But I love, love your writing. Especially when you mimic Dr. Seuss.

  4. Yvette, I might not have gone beyond the first 15 if I hadn't been pooped out from shopping! In my case, I'm glad I was attached to the couch.

    Isn't it fascinating what a difference a trailer can make, in that the second one grabbed the both of us?

    "Hope springs eternal around these parts." Yes. Every time the credits roll on a movie there is the hope that it will be special.

  5. "...and there's an explosive chase in the sequel that goes on far too long." Where do those actors find the energy for those chases that go on far too long? And where do the directors think the audience is going to find the energy for those chases that go on far too long? Maybe it's a generational thing?

    Indeed trailers are sneaky things. Rather, I imagine, like bios on dating sites.

    I look forward to the recommended Holmes-Moriarty confrontations. I don't know yet if it will be at the theatre this year or on TV next Christmas.

  6. Jacqueline, you made my day. I think I'll top things off by watching Ronald Howard as Holmes in TV's "The Gift of the Christmas Pudding" along with some green eggs and ham.

  7. I really enjoyed reading your review and you have really peaked my interest, in watching both the Robert Downey, Holmes films.

    Happy New Year!!

  8. Curiouser and curiouser, as Lewis Carroll would say -- I think you and I have another CHESTER vs. FESTUS on our hands, CW! I am one of the Holmes purists, in a sense. Mainly, I am a purist in how Holmes and Watson are portrayed. Ergo, the main thing I can say about these comic book action thriller Holmes movies is -- P!U! Can we still be friends?

  9. Ooops, forgot something. As in CHESTER vs. FESTUS, it looks like I'll be in the minority again!

  10. I was at Best Buy and caught the trailer as I raced down the aisles...surprisingly my first thought was, "Hey, that doesn't look too bad!"
    One of my favourite Holmes was Ronald Howard, son of Leslie Howard. I think about 30 half hour episodes. No budget to speak of, no production value to draw you in. But talented actors making the most of the situation. Fun television from the fifties.

  11. Dawn, it's worth a look on a rainy day. Definitely a "must be in the mood" piece with a consistent, irreverent tone.

  12. Becky, we can never not be pals.

    I am constantly amazed by how much can be done to/with the character of Sherlock Holmes, yet nothing can dim his original brilliance. We always return to Conan Doyle's inspiration. Even those of us who take side trips to chase & explosion land.

  13. Wimseybynature, it is Ronald Howard who makes those shows so appealing. I have a story recommendation for you. Canadian author James Powell's "Death in the Christmas Hour" is a charmer in which toys in a shop window come to life on Christmas Eve and the Sherlock Holmes doll is called upon to solve a murder.

  14. CW, I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to try for another Chester/Festus fun! I would love to read the story you mentioned to Wimsey. How clever!

  15. Becky, James Powell's story is wonderful. It's the kind of thing you read and say to yourself "I wish I'd written that". It's right down your alley, you Chester-lover you!

  16. Fabulous post, CW. Loved going on the adventure of your journey from dismissing a film based on your ('til now?) pristine trailer judgment to accepting and embracing it.

    I'm a purist about some things, but not Holmes. I enjoy the Rathbone movies, but am hooked on the Brett TV series(s). Robert Downey, Jr., has never disappointed me and so I was not particularly dismayed at the prospect of him in the role of the great Holmes. I saw and enjoyed the 2009 film, though it doesn't stand out in my memory now.

    I also loved learning of William Gillette - about whom I knew nothing - and his place in the creation of the Holmes character we know today.

    Happy New Year, CW!

  17. Happy New Year, Lady Eve!

    Thank you for your kind comments. Holmes is certainly a resilient character and I am reminded of another favourite "take", "Without a Clue" with Sir Ben Kingsley as Watson, the brains of the organization, and Michael Caine as a down-on-his-luck actor hired to be the public face of Holmes. Early in my marriage my hubby was embarrassed by my public display of hilarity when we saw the movie. A couple of years ago I shared it with my daughter and the two of us laughed just as heartily as I did almost 20 years ago.

  18. PS: Lady Eve, Gillette was quite a character.

  19. What a witty reflection--love your asides. I liked the first Downey Sherlock Holmes film and thought people who complained about it didn't realize we weren't living in the 1940s. I look forward to seeing the sequel when it comes out on DVD. Like you, I rarely pay to go to see a film in a theatre.

  20. Hi, Kim. I might have gone to see the sequel in the theatre if anyone had given me a movie gift card at Christmas - but, tis not to be. Someday we'll have to compare notes on the new one.

  21. Excellent post, CW! Still, I think you were right the first time about the 2009 picture. (My take is here, if you're curious; I do wish the paper had kept my original headline: "Baker Street irregular") For a reimagining of Holmes, I much prefer the BBC's Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch.

    Good work, as usual!

    1. I so regret not seeing this response until years later, Jim.



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