Movie Reviews: Sherlock Holmes (2009 and 2011) vs. Sherlock vs. Doyle’s Original

Continuing my series of Sherlock Holmes posts, I wanted to share my thoughts about the two Robert Downey, Jr movies from 2009 and 2011 about Holmes and compare them to the recent BBC TV series and the original books.

The original movie does a decent job of keeping us in introducing Holmes and Watson in a pretty realistic 19th C /early 20th C London. The banter between the Law and Downey, Jr is entertaining and as in the Avengers, the latter seems to have learned to leave some acting space for his supporting cast. The introduction of Irene Adler was clever, but her portrayal was far more romanticised than the Doyle original. A few things that I found a little annoying: in the books, Holmes is a very tall person, “well over 6 feet tall” according to Watson in “A Case in Scarlet” if memory serves. Downey, Jr is actually pretty short – certainly shorter than Jude Law (note in the photo for the movie that Jude is set back in perspective so that their heights are about equal). Most of the scenes showed a distance between the two actors to minimize the comparison but there were a few occasions where it is clear that Holmes is not taller than Watson. Another one that I also can pick on the TV series for, in “A Case in Scarlet”, Watson specifically mentions being wounded in the shoulder in Afghanistan. Yet, Watson is always shown with a leg injury. I haven’t understood that yet. What I did like was the intuitiveness of Holmes and the constant action. The deduction due to muddy shoes was appreciated here (it gets him into considerable trouble in the TV show S02E03 however). Some friends of mine found the stop motion really annoying in this film. It didn’t bother me all that much because I figured they were slowing things down in order for us to see Sherlock’s mind in action. I think I preferred the BBC approach with the heads-up display of Holmes’ thoughts but that’s just me. As for the storyline, Hollywood doesn’t seem to be able to do movies without implying global destruction – in this case a diabolical end-times kind of plot. I guess I was so disappointed with the religiousness of Dexter S06 that I had a hard time enjoying that aspect of it. It didn’t correspond to any particular Holmes story but rather contained elements of probably 3 or 4. Overall, it was entertainment and I was curious to see what they’d do with a second instalment.

The second film was released almost two years later. According to wikipedia, the studio invested an additional $30M in it ($125M total over $90M for the first one) and reaped about $20M more than the original ($542M over $524M). Now, half a billion twice in a row is a nice chunk of change, but was it worth it? Actually, these two films were probably both more interesting than either of the Iron Man films (which grossed well over $1.3B together so almost $200M more than this movie) but less entertaining than Avengers with astonishing pull of $1.5B. I suppose that we can safely assume that if Downey, Jr touches a movie, it instantly is worth several hundred million bucks, but once again, what are we getting for our money? Well, the second movie is actually deeper on several levels than the first. It attacks at the darkest conflict in the Holmes universe – the fatal fight between Moriarty and Holmes as described by Doyle in The Final Problem. The portrayal of Moriarty by Lane from Mad Men was admittedly a little disconcerting at first. That being said, he was sufficiently evil to eventually win me over as a character. It was pretty ballsy to kill off Irene Adler, something that few have dared to do in the Sherlock genre and a bit sad because folks tend to like her. The relationship between Holmes and Watson takes on some homosexual overtones that are excellent for comic relief but also underline an aspect of the Holmsian legend that seems to get overlooked – there was definitely something a bit akin to a sexual attraction between these two roommates and colleagues. I am re-reading Moby Dick and the camaraderie of Queequeg and Ishmael is a bit more explicit but still largely unsaid. Actually, in the books, the jealousy of Holmes as shown in the movie was absent at least in my reading but it was an interesting plot angle from Ritchie. Some other aspects I appreciated included the detection work with ashes and maps and especially the emphasis on disguise in the film – aspects that I particularly enjoyed in the books. Perhaps that is one aspect of the BBC series that is missing, Holmes’ mastery of disguise and here the movie nailed it. As for the monumental conclusion, I won’t spoil anything but it was different from the book and yet well thought-out. I am curious to see whether they make a third film and how they will start that one (similar to The Empty House?).

All in all, the movies were pretty faithful to Doyle original and also impressed based on the decor and the dialog. There were some nits but overall, both movies were entertaining and actually fun to watch. That being said, I was more blown away and motivated by the TV series because it was the show that put me on this Holmsian quest in the first place.

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About Michael Finocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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