The New Sherlock Holmes

Kelly Reilly who plays Dr Watson’s fiancée Mary

A review in one of the broadsheets described this film as something of a cross between James Bond and The Da Vinci Code. There are certainly elements of Dan Brown and Ian Fleming in the film, but an over-simplistic summary like this doesn’t do it justice – the film has much more besides.

Given that celebrity mockney Guy “the ex-Mr Madonna” Ritichie was directing it I wasn’t expecting a literary purist’s version of the works of Conan Doyle.  In typical Ritchie style Holmes relies on brawn almost as much as brain. While not strictly based on any of the canonical Holmes stories there are shades of such gems as Scandal in Bohemia, The Valley of Fear, The Sign of Four and The Final Problem.

Downey Jr as Holmes with Jude Law as Watson

I had my doubts about the casting of Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, but was pleasantly surprised. The great Jeremy Brett he ain’t, but he does make an excellent Holmes.  Downey’s post-modern Holmes is a scruffy, unshaven character who dresses somewhat flamboyantly in an almost Byronesque manner.  Also a dashing man of action in the mould of a Victorian James Bond with the nervous energy and subtle sex appeal of David Tennant’s Dr Who.  There are perhaps one or two fight scenes and explosions too many though.  The literary Holmes was a skilled pugilist, but was rarely seen in action.  Nevetheless Downey’s Holmes has the usual remarkable powers of irritatingly logcal deduction using the flimisiest shreds of evidence to draw conclusions and is true to tradition a master of disguise.  The plot is quite far-fetched and less plausible than any of the Conan Doyle stories, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment.  Downey’s Holmes is also considerably less dignified than the tradional interpretations and is subjected to his fair share of humiliating experiences throughout the course of the show. One could hardly imagine, for example the likes of Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone or Peter Cushing enduring the indignity of being drugged by a temptress waking up naked chained to a bed.  But then in this digital mass-media centred world modern audiences have an increasinglsy short attention span and are this so much more demanding than their predecessors of the late 19th/early 20th century.

Jude Law puts in a decent perforamance as Holmes’ loyal  sidekick the soon-to-be married Dr John Watson.  The doctor’s dignity and domestic duties contrast well with Holmes’ eccentric uncoventioanl behaviour.

Mark Strong as the villain has the menacing presence of Bond adversaries like Blofeld and Scaramanga or Dr Who’s arch-nemesis The Master.  One of his heavies is even vaguely reminiscent of the heavily-built metal-toothed Bond assailant Jaws.   Ironically Strong’s aquiline features and neatly greased back hair give him the appearance of how Holmes himself is traditionally portrayed. If this was deliberate then it’s a stroke of genius. It it’s purely coincidental it still works.

There is also the recurring theme of Holmes constantly solving the crime before the police much to the annoyance of Scotland Yard’s incompetent Inspector Lestrade.

For some bizarre reason The Rocky Road to Dublin by The Dubliners is played over the end credits as well as during a bare knuckle fight involving Holmes and a hulking gorilla of a man. Come to think of it Conan Doyle was of Irish origin, but this is probably just coincidental. There is also a number of very minor Irish characters in the film, including Derry’s Bronagh Gallagher who makes a cameo appearance as a street fortune teller.

Kelly Reilly and Jude Law


Rachel McAdams as American seductress Irene Adler provides the main eye candy.  Like Holmes she is portrayed as something of an action woman in the style of Lara Croft, who becomes a third unofficial member of the Homes/Watson team during the course of their investigations.  However Watson’s fiancée, the more feminine Mary is for this author more easy on the eye.

If any 9-year olds are tempted to go down to to their local police station in order to settle an argument with a schoolfriend as to the real existence of Sherlock Holmes (although as the film has a “12” certificate this shouldn’t be the case!) the standard disclaimer at the end should put their minds at rest “The characters in this motion picture are fictional and any resemblance to any real characters living or dead is purely coincidental”. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.  Pun very much intentional.

There is a very strong hint of sequel in the making, which I very much look forward to should it go ahead.  Despite a few forgiveable deviations from the literary Sherlock Holmes Downey has certainly proved his credentials as one of the three great iconic characters of popular fiction. He’s probably a little too old to play James Bond, but if Doctor Who ever transfers to the big screen…



  1. They probably thought that if they left in the actual grey-celled mannerisms of Sherlock, the audience – who don’t read the literary works, wouldn’t be impressed.

  2. Having read CW’s review of the film I can say that I am now quite looking forward to seeing it, even though, as CW will verify, I was very sceptical about the idea of Downey Jr playing the role. For me, there will only ever be one definitive Sherlock Holmes, and that was the late great Jeremy Brett. His portrayal of the detective, with mannerisms ranging from drug-addled langour to manic activity standing as the benchmark for all Holmes actors.

    Still – I’m sure that the film will be pretty good!

    Phil Larkin

  3. Jeena
    The makers of the film were quite clever in this respect actually. By making Holmes more of an action man they reeled in the kind of people who like the more typical Guy Ritchie violent gangster films. But also by basing the script on a number of original Holmes stories and maintaining the essential manic and ecentric behaviour of the literary detective from the Conan Doyle book they also made it appeal to genuine Sherlock fans -so attracted quite a diverse audience range which will no doubt do the chances of a sequel no harm!

    Phil – yes I agree that Brett’s Holmes was the closest to the original character and it will be incredibly difficult for any actors in future to match this template. It’s a shame that he died at a relatively young age without completing the entire canon of Conan Doyle’s stories. Still 41 stories out of a possible 60 ain’t bad! The Brett series made by Granada TV was also notable for its high production values and close attention to period detail. I read that the BBC is currently producing a modern day version of Sherlock Holmes starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin “Tim from The Office” Freeman as Watson. I have my doubts about this as I’m not sure if the essentially Victorian character of the Holmes stories can be adapted to the present day. But it will be interesting to see how it’s received.

    An interesting piece of trivia is that the only actor to have played Holmes in adaptations of every single Conan Doyle story is Clive Merrison who portrayed the detective in a BBC radio series between 1989 and 1998.

  4. Thanks for the review. I’m being won over to go see it. Robert Downey Jr always a draw, but I wasn’t so keen otherwise. I think you have persuaded me.
    Also – if you like that sort of thing, you might also like this sort of thing – The Last Days of Newgate – by Andrew Pepper – set in 1830s in London, with Irish aspects to it. The main character is a Bow Street Runner/freelance detective/relentless nemesis called Pyke.

  5. Thanks blackwatertown. The film is definitely worth seeing with its fast pace, impressive sets and action sequences while at the same time not straying too far from Doyle’s original creation.
    I’ll have to check out Last Days of Newgate.

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