Considering that one of the items on my holiday wish list is a tee-shirt bearing the legend “The book was better,” it goes without saying that I’m hard to please when it comes to movie adaptations of beloved works of literature. Very few are authentic or exhaustive enough for my tastes. So one might think it an advantage in going to see Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows that I have managed to avoid reading most of Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon in my lifetime. The few stories that I did read irritated me by not letting the reader see the details that Holmes was seeing at the scene of the crime. One had no chance whatsoever of even putting two clues together, let alone trying to keep pace with the brilliant detective. It never seemed like a fair fight, and Holmes’s self-congratulatory summing-up of his thought process at the end never seemed like enough of a payoff for me to want to go on to the next story.
But that’s just me, and countless other readers have obviously felt differently, turning Doyle into a media superstar in his own lifetime and making it necessary for him to resurrect Holmes after he thought that he had done with him for good. I wonder what the true Baker Street Irregulars think of the latest Hollywood exhumation of their hero.
As it turns out, the action-hero vision purveyed by director Ritchie, screenwriters Kieran and Michele Mulroney and stars Robert Downey, Jr. (Holmes) and Jude Law (Dr. Watson) may actually be closer to the author’s intent than some of the familiar movie versions – notably the classic 1940s outings starring Basil Rathbone as a rather stiff and proper Holmes and Nigel Bruce as an overly clueless and bumbling Holmes. Since the success of Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel The Seven Percent Solution, it has become more widely appreciated that Holmes actually was portrayed by Doyle as a cocaine user (though perhaps not on the scale enacted by Downey in real life). In the books, I am told, he is also quite buff and adept at fisticuffs, something of a Bohemian in his dress and housekeeping habits and…well, a bit of a wacko: possibly bipolar, obsessive/compulsive or at best suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome.
Downey, who won a Golden Globe for his starring role in the first installment of Ritchie’s series, captures that wacko Holmes perfectly, and Law stays only a half-step behind him as the slightly saner Watson, despite the fact that the storyline keeps putting them in situations so over-the-top that they have more in common with a 007 flick than a Victorian detective novel. “I’m under observation,” says Holmes at one point to explain why he can only leave his Baker Street residence in disguise; “As you should be” is Watson’s wry comeback. The pair’s love/hate chemistry and crackling one-on-one dialogue propel the viewer’s interest and willingness to accept some downright silly scenes, such as Holmes trailing Watson on his honeymoon while dressed in a bonnet and smeary lipstick, or riding a diminutive pony across the border of France and Germany with a band of Gypsies because he’s scared of horses (a detail for which I have as yet found no support in the Doyle canon).
Like its predecessor, Game of Shadows panders too much to moviegoers’ demands for flashy fight scenes and lots of exploding things. The movie’s end credits list about three times as many stuntmen as actors in the cast. Where these sleuths go, mayhem inevitably follows – and then, oddly, life seems to go on as usual. There’s a scene in a gentlemen’s club, for instance, where Holmes has taken Watson, ostensibly for his bachelor party (and in which we get to meet Holmes’s brother Mycroft, played with zany zest by the estimable Stephen Fry). None of Watson’s buddies show up (because Holmes lacks the social skills to think of inviting any), but within minutes the detectives are saving a Gypsy fortuneteller with ties to an international anarchist group (Noomi Rapace) from an acrobatic assassin. The chase involves much smashing-up of walls, floors and ceilings, but before the dust settles all the Victorian gentlemen go back to their gambling and drinking.
Indeed, the story starts off with an explosion, and the pyrotechnics get really big by the end, but at least there’s some rationale for them: Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty is out to corner the arms market in Western Europe and profit handsomely by triggering World War I a couple of decades early through a series of assassinations. Jared Harris is beautifully understated as Moriarty; even while engaging in torture he maintains his calm and professorial demeanor. There is no villainous moustache-twirling here, and his scenes with Holmes depict a true battle of wits between intellectual equals.
For all its hyped-up action, the script of Game of Shadows keeps coming back to the premise – well-founded in the literature – that what set Sherlock Holmes apart from other men are his extraordinary observational powers and his photographic memory. Asked “What do you see?” at one crime scene, he replies, almost with a sense of despair, “Everything. That is my curse.” And the stylistic flourish that sets Game of Shadows apart from other Sherlock Holmes movies is the frequent use of slow- and stop-motion camerawork and jagged editing to render the point of view of a mind that can indeed see life one frame at a time, as it were.
The cinematography by Philippe Rousselot is truly first-rate, and combined with meticulous lighting and art direction, gives this film an atmosphere that evokes a Victorian world that maybe never was, but feels like it could have been. The score by Hans Zimmer is also a treat, packed with quirky, unexpected tidbits like a Celtic fiddle tune backing a fight scene and some genuine Rom folk musicians playing in the Gypsy camp scenes. It may not be altogether what Arthur Conan Doyle had in mind, but Game of Shadows is a real “movie movie” that skillfully uses all the tools and tricks of contemporary cinema (short of 3-D) to keep Holmes and Watson very busy indeed, and the audience well-entertained.