Thursday, January 14, 2010
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan
Director: Guy Ritchie
Runtime: 128 min.
Verdict: A passable detective tale, but an engrossing and surprisingly emotional thriller.
Genre: Crime, Action, Thriller
Let us first establish the facts. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was no more than an exposition device and was so enjoyable for that very reason. Of course, if you really apply any logic to it all, there would be only one way left for you not to call it all preposterous – that to assume the obvious, the obvious being that it was Holmes himself who grandly designed the whole crime. Some of the deductions were plain ridiculous, and their reverse engineered existence was quite blatantly apparent. Yet it is all good fun, you know, like The Hardy Boys for high school, and not exactly a benchmark of literature. You pick them up again, now, and you would find yourself hard-pressed to finish most of his adventures. Such is their nature, and their only feature worthy of any literary note was their subtly haunting atmosphere, which suggested deep within us the plausibility of the occult and the supernatural. And when Holmes brought forth his expositions, they almost felt revelations.
But why am I getting the feeling I’m degrading the literary, or even the cinematic value of expositions? The thing is, I’ve always been against expositions, but only about their artistic merit. Not about the entertainment and satisfaction they provide. You see, dear reader, an exposition is as gratuitous as a sex scene. Fun if done well and placed at the right time, but boring when it just hangs in there obstructing the flow of a narrative. Even though I believe that if your script feels the need to explicitly elucidate the nature and cause and chronology of a crime or plot then you need to scratch it all and re-write (The Matrix Reloaded, one of the worst examples of expository dialog), there sure as hell is a definite place and time for exposition, for if employed wisely this narrative device allows you to draw upon a wider array of themes while at the same time involving and gratifying the audience’s attention. And that definite place would be the detective film. Case in example: Byomkesh Bakshi. A great fun of it was the detective unwinding the coil. Come to think of it, it is the quality of the exposition that is the ultimate measure of the effectiveness of the detective film.
And thus, we put Sherlock Holmes against its exposition, and the result is it just about passes muster. Mr. Ritchie, as you would realize dear reader, is no more than a good scriptwriter with a penchant for flashy camerawork. His visual style serves no other purpose other than to lend a shallow bravado, so that it conceals his lack of any genuine visual skills. A simple test: Rake up the best filmmakers you can think of and along with Mr. Ritchie, ask them to shoot the morning traffic. I double dare you, Mr. Ritchie would be one who would need some kind of dialog to make his video engaging on any level. Of course, I wouldn’t know about the others you chose. Hitchcock once said – “If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” As is the case with most of his theories, this holds most true for the detective film.
What was Hitchcock suggesting here? It is the establishment of facts. And this is where Mr. Ritchie (surprisingly not one of the scriptwriters here) loses it to a great degree. The details of the crime just do not stick for the exposition to work. Mr. Ritchie quiet unimaginatively translates these details onto the screen, capturing them in a quiet literal fashion. He goes through a scene of crime, and where in the books Dr. Watson’s narration provided for some sort of subjective details, which the final exposition drew leverage from by interpreting the same in Holmes’ astonishingly logical way, here those details scanned through the perspective of the film (narrator) just do not linger long enough to register any sort of impact on our memory. Mr. Ritchie just lets his camera roll, intercutting each object with a momentary flashback as seen through the eyes of Holmes, and it just doesn’t add up to anything. More importantly Sherlock Holmes doesn’t create a necessary enough diversion to engage us and make us believe, you know, in the presence of something mythical. The facts of the case just feel so inertly recited. That might have to do with the pace of the film, the medium-shot framing and relatively quick cutting, which doesn’t let us soak the atmosphere. Mind you, Mr. Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, as we assumed so conveniently and as it now turns out so wrongly, is quite faithful in tone to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s vision of the detective. Mr. Ritchie only spices up the action part, but in his endeavor to rein in elements and the feel of an action film, he loses the serenity and calmness so integral to a detective case. A film ought to take up all the necessary time in establishing the scene of a crime. We need to look no further than Michael Mann’s Manhunter, a crime masterpiece, and how carefully he establishes the first scene of crime, and lets it install itself firmly in our memory. It is never the quantity of the events that matter; it is the details in them that define a case. Sherlock Holmes, just keeps ratcheting along, and that might cause it to be a lesser detective tale.
But it works, as a buddy film, as an engaging thriller, as blockbuster entertainment, and even as a charming romantic tale. Mr. Downey Jr. is one of our great actors, and he pulls a few straight faces from Tropic Thunder, and makes Sherlock Holmes all his own. I might not know of another actor who is so at home at being so witty, and one of the tricks Mr. Downey Jr. employs is the blank stare he throws, while unassumingly unleashing wisecracks or expositions. All work, because of him. He makes Holmes not a cold calculating rational machine, but someone capable of feelings. And when the time comes for the crime to affect Holmes personally, it contains a surprising amount of emotion to it. The principal characters – Dr. Watson (Mr. Law), Irene Adler (Ms. McAdams), Lestrade (Mr. Marsan) – are felt so strongly because they are played by good actors. There might not be telling chemistry between Mr. Law and Mr. Downey Jr., ala Pitt-Clooney, but their interplay has a subtle richness to it, which I hope is fleshed out more in the eventual sequel.
Mr. Ritchie’s London is obligatorily gray, and glum, and it is somewhat atmospheric. The one visual trick of note he employs is Holmes foretelling of how and where he would beat an opponent, and the kind of damage it would cause. It is a neat trick, especially because the film departs from the safe vantage point of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels (Dr. Watson), and takes up the more challenging perspective of Sherlock Holmes. It doesn’t work enough, but it still could produce fascinating results if employed in the right manner. By the way, why am I remembering Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow? Never mind.
Ah, I forget, the case, er, the plot. Lord Blackwood (Mr. Strong), a proponent of black magic, who has killed over five people, has risen from the grave. And he is out to change the world. Figure the rest out for yourself. You know why? Because next time out, Holmes is against Moriarty. Oh, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Just a suggestion: bring someone worthy enough to hold his own against the utter genius of Mr. Downey Jr. Brad Pitt, eh? I tell you, it has to be a star.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 12:15 PM