Sunday, January 3, 2010

Steampunk Sherlock Holmes

I have a very mixed reaction to the cultural politics of the Big Hollywood blog. On one hand, anything that gives a venue to Michael Yon is doing something worthy. I find Joseph C. Phillips generally a rewarding read while Charles Winecoff is definitely one of the smarter and subtler gay voices in the blogopshere (or anywhere else, for that matter). But a lot of the other regular contributors I find I pass over with minimal interest.

I do appreciate the way Big Hollywood provides a venue for dissenting cultural views and it covers issues that are worth covering. But my views are too classical liberal/libertarian to get engaged by much of what they go on about. Nor, as an Australian, can I get as worked up over some of the very American (and sometimes very American conservative) resonances.

But, while John Nolte's review of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is a little more grudging than my reaction, it is mostly fair enough, with a gracious update on the action-oriented nature of the film.

An update that includes a link to SF writer Steve Barnes arguing that the action-hero Holmes the film presents us with is much closer to the Doyle original character than people might realise, though Barnes clearly enjoyed the film less than I did.

What this Sherlock Holmes is, is a steampunk Sherlock Holmes, but gently so. This is not to say it is a gentle movie: far from it. It is funny and witty and clever. It moves along very nicely and has some terrific action sequences. The steampunk is nicely woven in to give a great representation of Victorian London.

A representation I think I appreciated that most of all, particularly the striking visuals of the Thames with all its industrialising busy-ness.

I very much enjoyed all the performances. Robert Downey Jnr gives us a Sherlock Holmes one can believe (will become) a drug addict. A Holmes who is an incredible observer, brilliant deducer and a skilled martial artist (as the original Conan Doyle Holmes was) but who is also the sort of emotionally driven and unbalanced personality who goads himself to be all those things. It is a fine performance: emotional, cerebral and physical. (Downey also looks fine and buff with his shirt off.)

Jude Law's Watson is, if anything, even better. Someone who is a genuine partner, not tag-along-foil. Who both loves his friend and is exasperated by him. Without (thank goodness) any twee gay subtext. Law and Downey work as a pair.

Ritchie's direction is a little mannered in places: not up to the sustained innovative brilliance of Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. But it is still a fine cinematic achievement and a welcome return to form after some lesser achievements and a noted dud. The action sequence in the shipyard is as good a sequence as you will see anywhere. The thinks-things-out-in-advance martial arts sequences with Holmes both inform the audience and reconcile nicely Holmes-the-brilliant-observer-and-deducer with Holmes-the-martial-artist. It could be overdone, but Ritchie stops short of that. The film carries you along, with plenty of dramatic tension.

All the rest of the cast are great, striking just the right notes. Kelly Reilly is not called upon to do all that much as Watson's fiance, but she does it very well. One scene in particular requires you to care about her reactions very quickly, and she carries it off just fine. The astonishingly beautiful Rachel McAdams is very good indeed as the dangerous bad girl who Holmes has (for good reason) very nervous romantic tension with. Mark Strong provides a wonderful hateful villain.

The costuming fits in beautifully with the characterisation and the evocation of Victorian London. The soundtrack must have worked really well indeed, since I did not notice it at all. The rather more musical folk with me very much enjoyed it.

Sherlock Holmes is in no sense a profound cinematic experience. But it is an enormously fun one.

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