Holmes Away From Holmes: How Downey’s Sherlock Is Not Doyle’s

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There’s No Case Like Holmes

In full disclosure, I have been an obsessed Sherlock Holmes fan for over 30 years, and in addition to my many traditional and annotated editions of the stories, I also collect Sherlock Holmes memorabilia of all varieties, as well as a very large collection of over 75 Sherlock Holmes movies and television shows, all featuring dozens of different actors portraying Holmes. So it’s kinda my thing…

Past Holmes: Sherlock on Stage, Television, & Screen

Having said that, I think any fan of Sherlock Holmes will tell you that 95% of all portrayals on stage, television, and film over the last 128 years have been resounding failures! Having been depicted on screen 254 times, Guinness World Records announced that Sherlock Holmes had been awarded a world record for the most portrayed literary human character in film & TV. He even beat out Hamlet! Since his creation in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has been played by over 75 actors including Sir Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer, Peter Cook, Roger Moore, John Cleese, Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. As it turns out, Sherlock Holmes is an elusive and confounding character to play. He’s so mercurial and frighteningly intelligent, most actors are either intimidated by him and fail or are brash and overconfident and fail. For most fans there are only three actors that are worthy of praise:

  1. Basil Rathbone — Starred in a series of 14 films released between 1939 and 1946. Although Rathbone could be aloof, he also had a strong sense of duty and was a consummate gentleman. He was probably the most spry and active Holmes, and undoubtedly the most conventionally nice.
  2. Jeremy Brett — Considered by most people to be the best portrayal of Sherlock Holmes ever. He is so devastatingly good, and so true to the stories. He looks like the Paget drawings from the Strand, and effortlessly embodied the great detective. Brett played the fictional detective in four Granada TV series from 1984 to 1994 in all 41 episodes.
  3. Benedict Cumberbatch — Stars on the hit BBC tv show, Sherlock, an updated series set in modern day London, with stories inspired by the books, but then twisted and updated. Still, the show is remarkably true to the spirit of the Doyle stories. Cumberbatch is brilliant as the misanthropic, Spectrum–Savant, and socially awkward Holmes.

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Great Expectations: Holmes Is Where My Heart Is 

So….when Sherlock Holmes (2009) was announced, there was no Sherlock yet, nor was there Elementary. Needless to say, it had been a long dry spell without any Holmes, which no Holmes fan should have to endure. (careful what you wish for) The last Jeremy Brett show had aired 15 years prior. When I heard about the movie, I was legitimately excited. First, I had always enjoyed the movies of Guy Ritchie. I thought they were hip, edgy, postmodern, and gritty. I clearly didn’t really think this one through. In retrospect, they couldn’t have chosen a worse director than Ritchie. For some reason, I did not anticipate Ritchie’s obvious indifference to the source material and singular focus on unrelenting action. But more on that later. Secondly, I am a huge fan of Jude Law, and thought he might anchor the film nicely, with his quiet and sober presence. I considered that he might be a smart and clever companion, not the tired and dull-witted Watson we’ve seen so often. Finally, I was thrilled at the casting of Robert Downey Jr. Ever since I saw him in 1992’s Chaplin, I have been smitten with the actor, and closely followed his progress, through all his drug and legal problems. His Chaplin was staggeringly good. Incredible. I loved his work in numerous films since then, particularly Iron Man. What I liked about the choice, was Downey Jr. has range and the ability to escape into a role, like he did in Chaplin. He’s also a considerably intelligent man, and I thought this would help him connect with the genius of Holmes. Finally, I thought maybe their shared drug addiction history might bind the two together even more. Once again, I completely misread and failed to recognize the actor Downey Jr. has become, in recent years. He’s not so much disappearing into roles anymore, but the roles are disappearing into him. This was a grave miscalculation on my part.

Firstly, I want to say that as action films, the two Sherlock Holmes movies are really quite decent, and are easy to watch and be entertained. However, as a faithful portrayal of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the film’s ability to capture the spirit of the books, the movies fail in nearly every conceivable way. Here’s why:

Lotta Action, Little Deduction

Downey Jr. played Holmes as a scrappy street fighter whose default reflex was to rely on his fists nearly more than his wits. In the canon, Holmes is described as sinewy and wiry, “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman”, and there are several references in the canon to Holmes employing the first two of these skills. He is trained in Baritsu (Bartitsu), an eclectic martial art and self-defense method originally developed in England during the late Victorian Era. Keeping all this in mind, one of Holmes’ greatest strengths was his ability to outwit, outmaneuver, and anticipate his opponent’s moves, and typically avoid brawls altogether. In the few instances of physical violence, Holmes is swift and economical in delivery. Guy Ritchie’s stylized use of the camera to dissect Holmes’ foes for weak spots was viscerally thrilling, but in reality, it was a sensational modern gimmick that bore little resemblance to Conan Doyle’s creation. Violence is the last option, not the first. The movies are full of over-the-top action sequences and gratuitous explosions. There’s hardly any deduction going on amidst all the bombs and bullets flying. The original canon was NOTHING like that!

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Downey’s Charm Trumps Sherlock’s Mind

Earlier I stated that I thought RDJ was an intelligent man, and I stand by that assertion, but for some reason, Downey Jr. decided to abandon his natural born intellect, and play Holmes as an intellectual lightweight, who relied very heavily on his wit, charm, and mischievous inquisitiveness, rather than probing deductive mind. In other words, RDJ fell back on his own personality strengths. You must have noticed by now that this is RDJ’s bag of tricks. In all his films over the last decade or so, Downey Jr. has used these sneaky traits brilliantly. As Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers films, these personality traits worked perfectly for a tech genius smartass like Stark. If only he had brought Stark’s intellect with him to Holmes, and left the levity behind. That’s not to say Holmes is dour and humorless, but it’s certainly not his default. Downey’s Holmes was a very light and playful take on the character, and it was often difficult to take him seriously. He didn’t possess the gravitas and devastating intellect that a true genius possesses. He was simply not convincing as an unrivaled master of criminal deduction. At the end of the day, the Holmes of the stories may hold his own at fisticuffs, but with the exception of Moriarty, there is no other mind in London, and perhaps in the whole world, that rivals his powers of observation and native deductive reasoning. In short, Holmes may possess charm and wit when he needs it, but his locus and singular defining trait is inarguably his mind. Robert Downey Jr. barely convinced me he had one.

Although I almost always like Downey Jr’s acting in other films, he often relies too heavily on his charm and rascally wit. He is a rogue. Holmes is not. If Downey Jr. had properly prepared for the role, he would have immersed himself in the things that make Holmes tick: identifying 140 cigarette and cigar brands by their ash alone, disguises and deception, chemistry, regional soil samples, the use of dogs for tracking, mixing a seven percent solution of cocaine and heroin, and all the other forensic tools of the period. Holmes stored nothing in his mind that wasn’t useful for solving crimes. In fact, Watson discovered early on that Holmes had no idea the Earth revolved around the sun. It simply didn’t warrant his attention. Holmes without a case was always a delicate tinderbox. Downey Jr. needed to burn more with a singleminded determination to unravel riddles, almost at any cost. This instinct was rarely altruistic or moralistic, but always driven by a mind made for puzzles.

In essence, had he relied less on his innate Downey charm and more on cultivating an impregnable computational mind, he would have gone a long way towards depicting Sherlock as written.

Violating the Honor & Good Name of Irene Adler

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I don’t feel like there’s even enough space on a page to devote to how viscerally angry I was at the inclusion and depiction of Irene Adler in these films. There was absolutely no reason to write her into the script. They could have left her simmering as “The Woman” now only a picture locked away in Holmes’ drawer. His taciturn and woeful longing stand vigil to her memory, and Adler is more powerful as an idea…a memory from Holmes’ past. She will always be the woman who duped and outsmarted him, and such a thing rarely happens, and from a woman no less! Whether it’s deep love or professional admiration, it doesn’t matter. We know that Irene Adler is off limits, and locked away from view. Apparently, Guy Ritchie and company didn’t read a single story, or worse, decided to egregiously violate the sanctity of the original books. No one in their right mind would have Adler as some sort of action star buddy with simmering sexual tension and practically a laugh track behind their oh-so-clever banter. We get it. She’s a firecracker, and a formidable frenemy for Holmes. Except she’s not. Firstly, I cannot stand Rachel McAdams as an actress, so that colored my first impression. Part of that opinion comes from the assessment that she sort of looks like a rat, and speaks in high and tedious little girl’s voice. In short, I couldn’t take her seriously selling makeup at Macy’s, much less as Holmes’ intellectual equal and capable sparring partner. She was mousy and ineffectual, and I am still livid that they called her Irene Adler. They could have just made up another character, but they didn’t. Instead, they desecrate a beloved character from the canon.

Strengths of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes Films

Although there isn’t much to like about these films if you’re a true Sherlock Holmes fan, there are a few things they do have going for them. As I have said before, the action sequences are very well choreographed and directed. The action is very engaging, and worth watching for.

Secondly, the relationship between Holmes and Watson is very strong. I would not be surprised to learn that Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are quite close, because they have a very easy and comfortable chemistry on screen. They are very comfortable joking and teasing each other, and it is obvious these two actor, and by extension, characters, like each other. I don’t necessarily think Holmes would act as silly and mischievous with Watson as Downey Jr. does, but putting that aside, the two are very easy to watch. Given the fact that I did not enjoy RDJ’s portrayal of Holmes, I cannot help but wonder if Jude Law might have been a better choice for the role. He is such an excellent actor, and he has the intellect and more quiet and focused demeanor. It’s interesting to think about how things might have been.

Finally, the second movie, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is in many ways, superior to the first film. This is partly due to the fact that it has top-notch performances by three of my favorite actors. One fine performance was delivered by Stephen Fry, in the role of Mycroft Holmes. Fry not only looks the part, but was convincing as Holmes’ older and purportedly smarter brother. Of course, with a Holmes as dumbed down as Downey played him, even Kim Kardashian could have beat him at Chess The next great performance was by one of my favorites actresses today, Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, known for the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies. Finally, as disappointed as most Sherlock Holmes fans probably were with the casting and performance of Downey Jr. as Holmes, they should have been delighted with the exquisite performance of the inimitable Jared Harris as Holmes’ iconic arch-nemesis, James Moriarty. I thought he delivered a tour-de-force performance, and really saved an otherwise disappointing film.

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The Final Problem

In conclusion, as disappointed I was with his interpretation of Holmes, I’m not convinced Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t right for the role. He’s an incredibly gifted actor, and with the right discipline and guidance, he could have endowed the character with less action and jokes, and more cold calculating deduction. A little Downey goes a long way. If he could have dug deep, and pulled out the acting chops he used in Chaplin, he could have created a stunning Holmes. But I suspect no one has kicked Downey Jr’s ass in a long time, and he’s been allowed to skate by on his good looks and roguish charm. In this case, I lay the blame almost exclusively at the feet of director Guy Ritchie. He gave Downey Jr. free reign, and evidently didn’t have the vision or understanding of the source material to help RDJ shape the character more finely and faithfully. I cannot help but think the reason for this was he simply was not a devoted fan of Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps didn’t know what he wanted Holmes to be, other than in possession of Downey’s own irresistible charm. Ritchie was not the right choice to direct a period Victorian film about the beloved character of Sherlock Holmes. However, he was the right choice for an action-packed steam-punk movie about a wise-cracking amateur detective, his trusty sidekick, and a tough and sassy female love interest that was called anything but Sherlock Holmes. Where we could have used a director like Kenneth Brannagh, we instead got Michael Bay. Ugh.

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