The Habitrail Critic Plays a Game of Details

My abiding love for everything Holmes is already in evidence on this blog, so I’ll spare you a detailed repetition of my feverish fangirling on the subject. I’ll also confine myself to the bare reminder, at this moment, that my main criterion thus far for judging the worthiness of a film or television adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation is how it handles Watson. A proper Watson is what makes a great Holmes (at least in part).

I really quite enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes outing  in large part because it finally did Watson right. While the pacing was occasionally problematic, on the whole I also really liked the rhythm and look and feel of it very much. While it remained reasonably (but not slavishly) true to the original source material, it also made some playful and rather delightful adaptations that remained in the spirit of the original even where they deviated from its details. I didn’t like Rachel McAdams (mostly because I thought she couldn’t act her way out of a parking ticket, never mind occupying the same screen with someone who chews scenery the way Robert Downey Jr. does), but I thought the rest of the casting was terrific, and the whole event worked well. It had a distinctive style at work (built from camera, music, script, etc.) that made even the less rivetingly well-paced bits feel acute and vivid. The script was a lot weaker than the direction, but the direction and the style points of the film thoroughly overshadowed some of the script’s shortcomings.

Ritchie’s second effort, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, bears out the stylistic promise of its predecessor in some fascinating ways. Without spoiling anything much, I can say this: We meet Prof. Moriarty at last, and it’s totally worth it. He is exactly the way he should be (as played with the oddest combination of charm, menace, and misleading vulnerability — dotty-yet-homicidal Oxford don stuff — by the terrific Jared Harris). The mystery/plot is really beside the point, so I won’t waste any time on it here. The real star of this film is a combination of its brilliant style and the very human moments that style makes possible amid a thundering cacophony of coincidences and exploding ordinance. In a cinematic world in which story and character are often dictated solely by the requirements of action scenes and shiny special effects setups, this film performs a neat trick: It gives the audience character and story AND action scenes and special effects, and all of the effects serve the story and the development of the characters. The slo-mo device employed to illustrate Holmes’ thought process in the fight scenes (first established in the first film) pays off in this one as a way to advance the action AND as a way to put the audience, however briefly, in Holmes’ head. That’s no mean feat. Holmes, as originally written, has always been inscrutable; that’s why we need Watson, we readers and viewers, because we cannot be Holmes. (Note: this is the only way to write a genius like Holmes without being one — from the outside, as a mystery himself). Via a sort of weirdo technical miracle, a film chock full of crazy explosions and manic fights turns out to be a rather lovely meditation on a relationship. It doesn’t always work well, but when it does, it’s brilliant.

The thing that strikes me most powerfully about this film, though, is the way it reveals details. The filmmakers lit the shots and the makeup artists did their work, and the result is that we see every pore and mole (Rachel McAdams seems to have a lot of them, oddly enough), every wrinkle. We see Jared Harris’ dental work, and the light in his eyes. We see the lines of Robert Downey Jr.’s face, and how they shift with his expressions. The visual details are so sharp and unflattering that every revealed piece of skin seems warm and real, so perfect that Watson’s moustache and facial hair growth when we first see Jude Law on screen can almost be felt. It’s a level of detail and sharpness that makes Holmes’ urban camouflage joke even funnier, because it seems impossible that he should be invisible in a scene of such amazing clarity.

There’s no 3D nonsense in this film. Rather, its depth of detail and clever style stand as yet another good argument against 3D — why create silly thrown object tricks when we can have detail?

Also: I adore Stephen Fry, so his turn as Mycroft Holmes was entirely welcome (although there was at least one moment in the film when his presence could, for some viewers, provide a reason not to value depth of detail — a sweet little visual joke on the part of the filmmakers).


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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