Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sherlock Homes

Let's get one thing out of the way right now. I have never read a Sherlock Holmes book. It's not that I don't want to read them, I just haven't gotten to it due to the ever-grown list of books I keep stashed away in a notebook on my bookcase. This means I cannot tell you how close the movie is to the books, and I cannot add anything to that particular discussion. This also goes for the previous Holmes movies as well, but I at least know some of the ideas and iconography behind them, like the tweed suits, the weird hats, and his penchant for playing the violin.

In the new movie starring Robert Downey Jr., all of these iconic symbols of Sherlock Holmes are thrown out the window. Even his violin playing is boiled down into his plucking the strings when in the midst of thinking.

And he does a lot of thinking. Almost too much. This version of Holmes is almost manic, bordering on insanity. Because that this is a big budget action adventure film meant to appeal to a mass audience, we only get a small slice of his mental health, which is especially questionable when he has no case to follow.

After an exciting opening scene that feels a bit like the heart-pulling scene in The Temple of Doom, we find that Holmes has sunk into a kind of depression. He has locked himself in a room for the two weeks following the completion of his previous case, and is only talked out of his depression by his partner John Watson.

Locking himself in a dark room with the curtains drawn is only a hint of Holmes' depressive tendencies. Throughout the film, when Holmes has nothing to occupy his time, he obsesses on minute details. His gift and his curse are his talent for noticing the tiniest facet of information. This also leads to an almost obsessive-compulsive dwelling on the minute at the expense of the world around him, and including his own sanity.

This tendency is best exemplified in two scenes. The first is when he finally agrees to meet Watson's fiance for dinner, and rising to a challenge from her, he proceeds to deconstruct her by looking at her, her jewelry, and physical characteristics, like a missing ring on her ring finger. He revels in this chance to show off, and Downey lets a look come into his eyes of an almost supernatural nature, like a man looking into an other world. But he is so used to being the smartest man in the room, that he shuns all decency aside and mistakenly tells her that her previous fiance left her in the lurch, when in reality he died, and he receives a glass of wine to his face as his punishment. He is still satisfied with his performance, however, since he proceeds to eat, even after his companions have walked out on him. It's not an arrogance so much as a realization that he has returned from his depression into the world again. This one "game" seems to break him, momentarily, from living inside his own head.

The other scene that shows his manic tendency is after a brutal fight in which Holmes uses his remarkable reasoning ability to win the fight. After Holmes' win, Watson discovers him in the upstairs of a bar, obviously on some kind of substance, staring at flies he has captured in a jar. He has spent the last six hours playing different sounds on the violin and observing the flies reactions to his plucking and coming to meaningless conclusions.

Watson is the only person that seems to be able to pull Holmes out of these fits. He isn't impressed with his friend, and Holmes seems to respect him for this. It is a very close friendship, with Holmes even refers to Watson as a "brother". Watson is much more grounded, however, being an ex-soldier and now a doctor. There is no jealousy by Watson of Holmes' remarkable abilities, either. He enjoys Holmes and his company, and he knows that without him, Holmes could end up in a bad position, possibly a mental institution, or worse.

A third character of this movie is the music. It is a pulsating, rhythmic music that feels more like something out of a carnival in a Tim Burton movie. It is a mix of harpsichord and drums, and it haunts the movie. It is somehow fitting, though, in that it seems to remind you the remarkable brain of Holmes. Like him, this music doesn't stop.

In the scene I described earlier in the restaurant, before Watson arrives, Holmes' eyes are darting around, noticing every button, every conversation, and every nuance of the people who are dining. He pulls out a pocket watch and closes his eyes. He begins to focus on the ticking of the watch, slowly blocking the clamor that surrounds him. This is how the music of the film works. It is like that watch. It plays when Holmes' brain is occupied by the mystery surrounding him, keeping him occupied, able to concentrate on the matter at hand.

Sherlock Holmes is a fun movie and is anchored by two terrificly fun actors to watch. The tricks used to show how Holmes analyzes a situation before acting were a great surprise, and lots of fun. These tricks also hint a little of the madness lying underneath the genius that the people of London value.

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