Film Review | Sunday, 03 January 2010

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No need to ask, he’s a smooth operator

Yes, it’s yet another good review. I know that critics who don’t play the eloquent curmudgeon card for too long a stretch run the risk of being considered ‘soft’ by discerning readers who not only want to be informed about the buzz surrounding all the latest releases at the multiplexes, but who also look forward to perusing the reviews section to enjoy a healthy dose of vitriol thrown at the direction of directors and actors who spend (and are paid) millions to allow their (and the studios’) dreams to come to life on the big screen, in the hope that they’ll entertain us once again. But the fact is: it has been a good season.
The inevitable autumnal slump notwithstanding, we’ve been spoilt by an eclectic brew of solid entertainment these past few months. Leading up to ‘Avatar’, James Cameron’s eye-popping technological masterpiece, Hollywood has allowed plenty a quirky film to slip through the cracks, as even kiddie fare and the pulpiest of genres were regaled with some star treatments: ‘Up’, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ offset the puerile stuff like ‘2012’ nicely. And to cap off a great year, in comes Guy Ritchie’s reinvention of what is probably a staple of the Western world’s cultural consciousness: ‘Sherlock Holmes’.

When I first heard about this pairing of Ritchie (who, apart from being Madonna’s ex-hubby, has single-handedly reinvented the Brit gangster film genre) and Robert Downey Jr. (who takes on the role of the legendary super-sleuth), I have to say that I was quite excited, even if the knee-jerk reaction is meant to be an apprehensive one, particularly from a lit-geek such as myself. “Downey’s perfect,” I would tell the nay-sayers, citing the fact that Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective is in fact described as a highly disorganised ‘Bohemian’ sort, who homes in on the case with precision only after he has sifted through the facts that have eluded the masses using a series of highly intelligent but also quite creative methods. Downey’s resurrection as a superstar following ‘Iron Man’ has warmed him to audiences of all ages, and his chequered past has only helped to cement him as a figure to root for. Part of the reason for this is his natural intensity, coupled with a genuinely devil-may-care attitude towards the craft. Which is one of the better definitions of Sherlock Holmes himself… if you’ve actually had a look at any of the original stories recently, you wouldn’t find this statement so shocking. The problem is that the many previous screen adaptations of Doyle’s tales all catered to a buttoned-up, cosily English and strait-laced take on things, to the point where any grit and menace (and there are genuine traces of it) was effaced. These are the elements of Holmes that Ritchie and co. have intensified, and if nothing else, it makes for a great ride.

In a composite of Holmes stories and characters, the film pits the Great Detective and his trusty (but by now reluctant) sidekick Dr John Holmes (Jude Law) against Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), whose dabbling in the occult, bolstered by his connections with the Freemasons, threaten to undermine both England and the world. The plot thickens when Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an old flame of Holmes’ and one of the only people to ever outsmart him, shows up with an agenda all of her own. Holmes is hungry for another case to sink his teeth into, but Watson is eager to put it all behind him, as his most pressing need is finding a suitable ring for his betrothed, Mary (Kelly Reilly). However, the series of events brought about by Blackwood and his cohorts continually lure him back in, as even Holmes seems to be over his head with this particular case.
Ritchie’s kinetic style works remarkably well in this period piece, though one must give credit where credit is due: no less than four people were responsible for stitching a decent script together (Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg and Lionel Wigram), one which takes note of the Holmes mythos and accommodates the innovations, while Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography creates a wonderful sandbox for Ritchie to play in: with London in fully squalid, Dickensian mode, Ritchie’s gangster-grit fits right in. What emerges is a relentlessly fun slice of period action-adventure, charioted by two charismatic leads who are clearly having fun throughout the whole thing. Add to this already heady brew an inspired soundtrack by the titanic Hans Zimmer (Gladiator), tinged with gypsy sounds, and you have yourself a winner.

If there was one thing I was apprehensive about with this film, it’s the pairing of Downey and Law: both are big names, and one expects them to jostle for space on screen, never finding a comfortable fit as buddies. But it was probably Downey’s notoriously jokey off-screen persona that broke the ice and stopped this from ever happening, because if there is a more comfortable male pairing in cinema this year, I will eat my monocle.


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