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Review of Sherlock Holmes

by Steven Novella, Dec 28 2009

Sherlock Holmes has always been a favorite fictional character of mine. He is a deeply flawed character, and that is likely part of his appeal and popularity. But mostly, at his core, he is a profoundly rational character, combining impeccable logic, keen observation and attention to detail, and an astounding fund of knowledge.

I doubt there is a fictional character more famous than Holmes for his towering intellect.

Like any fan, I approach a new imagining of a favorite hero with some trepidation – and that is how I approached the new Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

There is simply no way for me to discuss this movie without massive spoilers. So do not read on if you have not seen the movie and are planning to. I do recommend the movie – so go see it, and then come back and read the rest of this post.

If you have read this far, then I can assume you have seen the movie or don’t care,

First, let me say I was pleasantly surprised by the film. The previews made Holmes seem more like an action hero, but that was not the case. Holmes was more brawny than previous incarnations, but except for occasional fisticuffs, Downey’s Holmes was as effete, proper, and pompous as ever. But more importantly, he remained every bit the intellectual the character should be.

I liked the way Watson was portrayed. He was less Holmes lap dog and more his equal, every bit as sharp as Holmes. And it was obvious that Holmes really cared for him. The one small downside to this, however, is that Watson was less in his role of needing everything explained to him. So there was less running commentary on Holmes musings about the case.

This was a factor in my only minor complaint about the movie – the clues were not sufficiently accessible to the audience. Holmes figures things out by applying his rarefied knowledge, which is fine and is certainly part of the character – but there also should be a balance of those clues that can be reasoned out even without knowing ahead of time that a paralytic poison can be made from dehydrated rhododendron.

Perhaps this difference results from the medium – cinema vs book – but I don’t think that entirely explains it. My concern is that it makes scientific knowledge seem inaccessible – almost magical.

I have this quibble, however, because otherwise the movie was awesome and true to the rational icon of Sherlock Holmes. Throughout the movie the villain attempts to take control by using trickery to duplicate paranormal powers. He attempts to use fear and superstition to panic the masses. He even makes an all-out effort to get Holmes to abandon his strict adherence to rationality and “broaden his view” to accept the apparently paranormal happenings around him.

While watching the film I was concerned that the writers had thrust Holmes into a paranormal universe. That would have been a disaster, and I would be writing a very different review if that were the case. But in the end we are rewarded – Holmes did not waver from reason for a moment. And in the end reason wins the day.

And that, of course, is my favorite thing about the character of Sherlock Holmes. He is a celebration of reason, rationality, science, and knowledge in general. I have read that Arthur Conan Doyle (who himself believed in fairies and spiritualism) meant for Holmes to be a caricature of the hyper-rational snob. But Holmes took on a life of his own – it seems the public liked Holmes and his superstar intellect more than Doyle.

Recently we have seen a resurgence of the Holmes archetype in fiction. House is a carbon copy of Holmes, down to his narcotic addiction. The Mentalist, The Eleventh Hour, CSI, and Bones all have characters that channel the great detective.

And now Holmes is brought back to the big screen, with an obvious setup for sequels. I hope we are seeing a cultural backlash against the burgeoning irrationality of the last couple of decades. Let the pendulum swing.

23 Responses to “Review of Sherlock Holmes”

  1. Mark says:

    Ha, The Eleventh Hour was a good show. Too bad it was cancelled. Perhaps I should try to find the non-American version.

  2. I’m totally with you on the peeve. I am always sad when mysteries don’t give me enough to be able to figure out at least part of the solution for myself. Leaving it all to clever exposition at the end felt like they were assuming the audience isn’t smart enough to figure it out for themselves, which is sad… It happens with House a lot as well, where the actual answer is simply covered in medical ‘magic.’ The audience never has a chance.

    I recently started watching the old British show Jonathan Creek. It’s very good about leaving enough clues for you to at least figure out part of the solution yourself, particularly in the earlier shows. Really fun, skeptical stuff :)

  3. John Paradox says:

    The British Eleventh Hour (Patrick Stewart as the lead character, replaced in the US with Rufus Sewell) is available on DVD as a set of all the mini-series episodes. I also was a fan of the US version, both because of the ‘rationality’, and I loved Sewell in DARK CITY, so when I found the DVDs at the local Public Library, I immediately checked them out. This was when the series was still on, and the changes (addition of the third major character) were IMHO were okay and had potential to be an interesting series – I made the choice to watch this series instead of the popular FRINGE.
    BTW, at NetFlix, they are accepting pre-orders for the US version, and have the UK available.

    • oldebabe says:

      Eleventh Hour is another show that should not have been cancelled, I heartily agree. Are you saying that NetFlix has the series with Sewell that was cancelled available for sale?

  4. Johnathan Creek was perhaps the best detective show on TV ever, in my opinion. It accomplished what The Mentalist promised but could not deliver (due to mediocre writing). It was a very skeptical show in every respect – watch it, if you can find it.

  5. Leslie Haber says:

    We saw it yesterday. I, too, was concerned that Holmes was moving toward a magical solution, especially when he started drawing pentagrams on the floor, but, as you say, it all worked out.

    Loved Jonathon Creek. I wish they’d redo that show, updated to the even more spectacular special effects available to even moderate science buffs now.

    The ending to Sherlock Holmes–imagine a world where one could control electromagnetic energy, from anywhere, with radio waves! How cool is that!

    • MadScientist says:

      Hmm… Sherlock Holmes meets Dr. Loveless and Jim West? Ah, Michael Dunn – there haven’t been many who could equal his villains – Dr. Loveless and Mr. Big.

  6. claude says:

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never gave you all the clues and left most the answers till the end. I thought the movie was really close to the orginal writing style. I didnt grow to be all that concerned with the characters, this is probably more to do with the Holmes story line and style. There is no surpise left in Sherlock Holmes we all know there will be the rational science based ending to the mystery while fun yes, just not very riviting. I’ll give it 3 out five.

  7. MadScientist says:

    I used to enjoy Holmes until I was about 10 and realized that he was not a brilliant man but that Doyle relied on witholding (fictional) facts to make Holmes look good. Scenes are described to the reader, and at the end when Holmes is explaining everything to the dull old Watson he decides to fill in all the other (mostly obvious) details which happened to be left out on the first narration. So I prefer Poe’s Msr. Dupin.

  8. miller says:

    Perhaps this difference results from the medium – cinema vs book – but I don’t think that entirely explains it. My concern is that it makes scientific knowledge seem inaccessible – almost magical.

    The original stories were pretty much the same way. Holmes would typically explain clues only at the end, often pointing out important details that weren’t even mentioned in the text. Watson would even complain to Holmes about his withholding everything until the end. It kind of annoyed me, actually, and that’s why I’m not a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. Decent film though.

  9. rrpostal says:

    This makes me pretty happy that I may be able to stomach this film, or even better enjoy it. Nobody wanted to see it with me this weekend but I may see it this week when my daughters see Avatar again.

  10. Ruth says:

    I greatly admire this film for many of the same reasons as Dr. Novella, however I would argue that one of the more compelling parts of this film is one “flaw” he found: “My concern is that it makes scientific knowledge seem inaccessible – almost magical.” Let us backtrack a minute and remember that this would most definitely be the case in Victorian England. Science we take for granted today would be inaccessible to most and magic would be the most logical and acceptable conclusion. At a time when the middle class is just becoming a class of some influence, education is still a rare thing; most people couldn’t even read. This made them pliable and easily controlled.

    I think the creators of this film DID make every effort to be “fair,” by revealing all the necessary clues to be able to solve the crime. Just because we’re not as smart as Sherlock Holmes is the point. All great mysteries are like this and it’s no different than Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.”

  11. I actually took a course on Sherlock Holmes in medical school in which we read many of the short stories, but not all the way through – we stopped before the reveal. And then our task was to solve the mystery from the information presented. I had not previously read any of the stories we used in class. So I can say from direct experience that it is possible to figure out the Holmes mysteries from the information presented to the reader.

    Holmes had specialized knowledge that dazzled the reader, but was not necessary to solve the core mystery. Logic was sufficient for that.

    The movie could have been truer to that style.

  12. Steve M says:

    Recently we have seen a resurgence of the Holmes archetype in fiction. House is a carbon copy of Holmes, down to his narcotic addiction. The Mentalist, The Eleventh Hour, CSI, and Bones all have characters that channel the great detective.

    I’ve read several reviews of this film, and most reviewers make the same comparison to fictional characters, but everyone always leaves out my favorite: Daryl Zero from the excellent film, The Zero Effect. I think he is even more “Holmesian” than House.

  13. Dax says:

    Too bad that the plot was just a rehash, same with the side characters. I was severely disappointed with the film, the stylistic approach (or lack thereof), the dialogues, the over the top fight scenes, and even the poorly animated London skylines. It was just like any other film released these days, which is a bit odd knowing that the film is by Guy Ritchie, who in a distant past made some good films.

    I hoped they would play down the action sequences a bit, used fewer cliches (seriously? the end scene on an under construction tower bridge? *sigh*)… you know, some of the best films are those without explosions and highly stylised and choreographed fights.

  14. ray says:

    I got back from seeing it tonight and loved the fight scenes with Holmes: where he worked out, in seconds, his every move and then executed them. Wonderful imagery and a great way to show Holmes’ superiority without having tedious exposition. Yes, this film changes the Holmes canon, but do we want every film to be a remake of the Basil Rathbone/Jeremy Brett Holmes? Surely it does the series good to be shaken up every once in a while?

  15. Sharon says:

    Interesting you mentioned House in your review. After the movie, I told my daughters that through the whole Sherlock Holmes movie I was reminded of House and his relationship with Wilson, very similar. Without my daughter’s suggestion I’m not sure I would have gone to see this movie, but I’ve always been a fan of the Holmes stories and went along. Not my favorite movie of all time by any means but it was interesting nonetheless.

  16. Chris says:

    I grew up loving Sherlock Holmes! I had read all sixty stories by the time I was in 8th grade (then I started to read the Professor Challenger stories, but stopped after the first two when Conan-Doyle’s writing was a bit woo-woo). I used to love watching the Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone, and I will eventually watch this movie (on DVD, I’m patient).

    In the mean time, along with downloading the SGU podcast each week, I also listen to a radio mystery podcast that includes original Sherlock Holmes stories (I used to go to the live recordings when I had more time, and I hope to get to another soon). Here is the Sherlock Holmes page (look at the “Listen Now” button on the side for online listening).

    I actually listened to radio plays in college, and often wrote lab reports with CBS Mystery Theater in the background (which the Imagination Theater spinned off of later). Oddly enough, it was one of those radio plays that introduced me to the concept of Neal Adams’ Hollow Earth over thirty years ago!

  17. bryce says:

    For Holmes-like TV characters – don’t forget “House”…that arrogant narcotic-addicted and brilliant solver of medical mysteries.

  18. Phil says:

    I loved this movie. As you say, in the end the scientific method won out. I particularly liked the humor and steampunk look of the film. However, I thought Downey mumbled quite a bit and sometimes I didn’t understand what he said.

  19. Dead Man says:

    here’s another interesting article on Sherlock Holmes

  20. A.L. says:

    You should take a peek at the British TV series “Murder Rooms” (subtitled “The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes”). Quote from Wikipedia: “It was inspired by the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based the character of Sherlock Holmes on his tutor at the University of Edinburgh Dr Joseph Bell, and that Bell did occasionally do forensic work for the Edinburgh police.”

    I enjoyed it more for the realistic-looking and “smelling” 19th century London. Don’t count me among the Holmes fans, people – real life just isn’t convenient enough to have murders running around with smoking guns. I can see how Conan Doyle intended Holmes to be a caricature of a detective. Give me “Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators” anytime when I’ll have regressed to my sweet teens.

  21. Xroad says:

    “The ending to Sherlock Holmes–imagine a world where one could control electromagnetic energy, from anywhere, with radio waves!”

    Wasn’t the term radio waves coined in the early 20th century? Electricity was discovered before the term “radio waves” came about and in the movie, there was clearly no electricity yet.