Steampunk Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)
I have seen some criticism about Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of everybody’s favorite detective. Sure, he plays the violin, hangs out with Dr. Watson and solves crimes in Victorian England, but some would argue that he is missing the essence of Sherlock Holmes because he spends some of his time running around and getting blown up. Though I agree that Conan Doyle’s Holmes was certainly more subtle in his approach than the 2009 movie would make him out to be, it is precisely this departure from the written word that makes this film Steampunk.
And in some ways, it is not a departure so much as highlighting some of those aspects of the enigma that is Sherlock Holmes that are often ignored. For instance, Watson tells us in the novels that Mr. Holmes has experience with boxing, and in the film we get to see what a fight against a calculating genius might look like. Downey Jr.’s Holmes is just as engaged with his body as he is with his mind, so to me it is not a transgression against the character so much as a change of emphasis.
For me, the most jarring change to the character had nothing to do with his feats of derring-do but stemmed from the dialog, and this is something I have noticed in more than one of the recent reimaginings of Sherlock Holmes. Like Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal on the BBC’s Sherlock, the 2009 movie Holmes is, well, a jerk. When Downey Jr. meets Watson’s fiancee, Mary (Kelly Reilly), for the first time, he wastes almost no time in insulting her and making the situation so uncomfortable that she chooses to leave the table and cut off the evening before it has even started. (By the way, did you know that this interaction is a complete rewrite of the original plot from the books? Watson meets Mary during a case, so Holmes would have known her from the beginning of their courtship.)
He and Watson (Jude Law) also take turns taking jabs at the police force, but if you read the original stories, Holmes had great respect for the work the police would do and often sent them off to do some of the legwork of following up on leads for him. He might have known that the lead wouldn’t lead anywhere, but he still trusted them enough to do their jobs and was rarely if ever rude to anyone’s face. After all, Sherlock Holmes was a gentleman. But, it makes sense that with a less dignified and more rough-and-tumble type person there would also be a shift in the way he would interact with others, and so it does feel authentic with the character.
I absolutely loved the movie and I think it was these shifts of characterization, as well as an interesting narrative and gorgeous sets and costumes, that helped draw me to Steampunk in the first place. I loved seeing classic literature turned on its head, both through the “punking” of personalities as well as the addition of elements of the supernatural, alongside fun action, a Gothic feel to sets and costumes, as well as a great cast with wonderful chemistry, both between Holmes and the cunning Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), but also between Holmes and Watson. They have a brotherly bond that is all but void of the awe that the literary Watson feels about Holmes, which leaves room for some comedy to off-set the gloom and doom of London on the brink of panic over the demonic Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) and his mysterious rise from the dead. I also love the use of the Tower Bridge, shown in the film as still under construction, to give the events historical context without pinpointing it to a particular year.