Sherlock Holmes And The Problem Of Scale

There’s been a lot of talk about Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, much of it around its apparent betrayal of its source. How dare he portray Holmes as some kind of scrappy action hero? That’s almost as bad as putting on a fake Cockney accent when your mum is Lady Leighton. But —

Holmes is a kind of scrappy action hero. Conan Doyle’s original has studied boxing, martial arts and swordsmanship. He’s handy with a revolver (although, just as in the movie, he generally forgets to bring his own), strong enough to bend a poker (why does that sound like some kind of Victorian double entendre?) and agile enough to take on — and knock out — one of London’s champion boxers. He wears tails in the drawing room, rags on the street and a ratty dressing gown at home, and he tends to smell of whatever vile chemical he’s been working with that morning. He’s also a manic depressive, a voracious reader of the tabloids and a regular user of cocaine, which would guarantee him a top job in television, were it not that he’s also highly intelligent with a genuine interest in people.

I love the Sherlock Holmes stories (not the novels: apart from The Hound of the Baskervilles they’re pretty tedious) and grew up on the Jeremy Brett series, but Robert Downey Jr. is as good as any Holmes we’ve seen: dangerous, mercurial and brilliant, you can see why Watson loves him, Lestrade loathes him and London’s villains tremble at his name. Ritchie and his screenwriters (Simon Kinberg, Anthony Peckham, Michael Robert Johnson and Lionel Wigram) also restore Watson to his rightful role as brave companion rather than bumbling fool, and in doing so have freed Jude Law to be a terrific character actor rather than a reluctant leading man. There’s also sparkling support from Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler and Mark Strong, who manages to play the fiendish Lord Blackwood without even a moustache to twirl. And there’s London. We’ve grown so used to Victorian London on a BBC budget — fifteen orphans and a hansom cab — that it’s a thrill to see it with a Hollywood one. Crammed with people, choked with smoke, this is a throbbing, pungent industrial metropolis. Reflecting this, Ritchie sets his action less in drawing rooms and libraries than in dry docks, slaughter houses (a very scary sequence involving Rachel McAdams and a giant bacon slicer) and laboratories: this is the port and factory of the world.

So why, after a hugely enjoyable first hour or so, is the movie ultimately disappointing? The problem, as so often with big thrillers, is a massive misjudgement of scale. In the first half of the movie, Holmes and Watson are — well, being Holmes and Watson: cracking conundrums, annoying the police and searching for a missing midget (they’re always in the last place you look). In the second half they’re saving the world, and this is where the film goes awry. As Stalin famously put it, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic”, and nowhere is this truer than in big budget films. Do we care about Ms McAdams being turned into pancetta? Hell, yes. But do we care about Mark Strong and his followers taking over the world? Well — not really. Time and again, film-makers feel that to increase the suspense of the audience they must increase the scale of the story. But in reality, the opposite is often true. When a story becomes too big it becomes statistics, and the audience stops caring what will happen, because we lose any real sense of threat.

Hitchcock always understood that the “big” story — the stolen military secrets — was essentially irrelevant: that what we cared about was Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant. James Bond has been successfully reinvented by focusing on Bond and the people around him, rather than lasers in space. And the best episodes of the relaunched Doctor Who have been its smaller, more intimate stories — Blink, The Girl In The Fireplace, Silence In The Library — rather than its “end of the universe” epics.

Sherlock Holmes is a hugely confident, clear-sighted start to a franchise. It’s funny and charming and exciting, and I’m looking forward to more of Downey, Law and McAdams. I’m also looking forward to more Moriarty, the villain in the shadows of this film. But let’s not forget that Conan Doyle’s climax was not the entire world in peril, but Holmes and Moriarty, alone at the edge of the Reichenbach Falls.

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As we speed towards the Oscars, Slumdog hoovering up awards along the way, one of the great annual pleasures is the Newsweek round table discussions between the nominees. Highlight this year is this collection of nominated actors — including Frank Langella, Robert Downey Jr and Anne Hathaway —  discussing the craft, the business, the publicity — and the bathroom.