Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes and Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty play out one of the two seriously Holmesian moments in Guy Ritchie’s not actually unserious Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
The central joke of director Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes movie was that Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are not your grandparents’ Holmes and Watson.
Instead of a pair of proper Victorian gentlemen doing their civic duty with a minimum of fuss and bother, Ritchie asked us---forced us---to re-imagine them as a couple of swashbuckling Cockney bully-boys having a high old time getting into trouble with police and criminals alike and fighting and shooting their way out of it. In other words, as characters in a Guy Ritchie movie.
The joke within the joke was that this reconception of Holmes and Watson wasn’t all that far-fetched, relative to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. There’s enough in them to suggest that Doyle’s Holmes is capable of the kind of fisticuffs and gunplay Downey’s Holmes engages in and, not only that, in the course of his career he’s had plenty of opportunities to put these capabilities to use, it’s just tended to happen when Watson wasn’t there to witness it and write it down. Even Watson, as Watson himself hints, is capable of more vigorous and violent action than he usually has a chance to show. Not only is he awfully handy with his trusty service revolver, he states candidly, and a little proudly, that his time in the war in Afghanistan has left him somewhat unsuited for civilian life. In the new BBC series, Mycroft observes that Watson’s problem is that he misses the war and its excitement and adventure. Again, taking the cue from Doyle, this is plausible, and in the Ritchie movies it’s the subtext that explains why, even though Watson thinks he wants to settle down and get married, he eagerly joins Holmes in whatever fight comes their way and matches him shot for shot and blow for blow. It’s why in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Holmes can throw Mrs Watson off a moving train and still count on Watson’s concentrated help in shooting it out with Professor Moriarty’s henchmen. Holmes knows that even though Watson loves Mary, he’s not looking forward to a quiet honeymoon at the seaside as much as he’s eager to get back in the fight and reflex will kick in.
By the way, Holmes did time it perfectly.
But now, having established the joke, Ritchie feels free to tell us he was only half-kidding. Seeing Holmes and Watson in A Game of Shadows brawling, dueling, and exchanging gunfire with the bad guys and dodging canon fire and outrunning fireballs isn’t the joke, just the occasion for jokes and wisecracks. Even though we’re meant to laugh, we’re also meant to take the adventure seriously.
More to the point, Ritchie wants us to take his Sherlock Holmes seriously.
The key to our doing this is Jared Harris’ superbly understated malevolence as Professor Moriarity. A Game of Shadows is an amusing---and thrilling, as in a roller coaster ride---fantasia on The Final Problem. But the beauty of it is that Harris’ Moriarty could be spliced seamlessly into a more straight-forward and faithful adaptation of the tale Doyle intended as Holmes last case. And in Harris’ scenes with Downey we can see that Downey himself has been playing it straight all along as well.
Downey’s Holmes isn’t meant to be canonical. He’s not the Sherlock Holmes, but he is a Sherlock Holmes, an entertaining not quite parallel universe Holmes. Holmes’ reputation as an anti-social neurotic has been greatly exaggerated, in some cases by Holmes himself. Doyle’s Holmes can be rude and tactless and he doesn’t always show the sympathy his clients hope for and, often, deserve. But this is professional necessity as much as temperament. Holmes holds himself aloof in order to keep his mind free of emotional distractions while he concentrates on the case at hand. So we’ve come to expect that a faithful portrayal of Holmes will have a coldness at its heart, although not so cold it can’t be melted or at least thawed. What Downey does differently from Rathbone, Brett, and now Benedict Cumberbatch, is substitute selfishness for the coldness. He’s selfish, self-centered---as opposed to professionally self-absorbed---and petulant. In the BBC series, Cumberbatch’s Holmes describes himself as a high-functioning sociopath. He’s kidding. (Maybe.) What he means is that he has been too busy and abstracted to learn how to work well and play with others. What looks like lack of feeling is cluelessness, impatience, and thoughtlessness. Downey’s Holmes is just as clueless, but he can be thoughtful. He just thinks that everybody ought to want to play by his rules, and Rule Number One is he gets to be the center of attention, at all times. Basically, he’s a child and, faced with the prospect of Watson’s marriage, he’s a very jealous child who has figured out that mommy and daddy are up to something in the bedroom from which he is most emphatically excluded.
By the end of the first movie, it appeared that Holmes had accepted Mary’s permanent presence in Watson’s life because he’d realized she was not only going to allow Watson out of the house to play with Holmes, she was going to come along to join in the fun. At the beginning of A Game of Shadows he seems to have backslid. It turns out that what we, and Watson, take for a resurgent jealousy is actually fear.
This fear isn’t psycho-sexual, although there may be some of that going on as well. Holmes is afraid that he’s losing his only friend to a rival with whom he can’t compete. But that’s something to deal with later. At the moment, it’s Professor Moriarty he’s afraid of and he’s very afraid.
Just as in The Final Problem, A Game Shadows begins with Holmes and Watson not having seen each other in a while. Watson has moved out of 221B Baker Street and into the home he plans to share with Mary after they’re married. Holmes has been busy identifying and tracing all the strands back to the center of Moriarty’s great spider web of crime. In doing so he’s discovered that Moriarty is up to something far more sinister than simply controlling London’s criminal underworld.
Unfortunately, Moriarty now knows that Holmes knows. While before, the Napoleon of Crime was willing to put up with Holmes’ occasional interference and even enjoy matching wits with the great detective, the stakes have gotten too high.
Holmes is confident that given time he can outwit Moriarty. The problem is the Professor has grown bored and impatient and has decided to cut the time short. Of course, he could have Holmes killed, but A.) that’s easier said then done, B.) Moriarty is ambivalent about losing so worthy and amusing an adversary, and C.) the prospect of dying might have the opposite effect on Holmes and instead of scaring him off, intensify his pursuit. Moriarty decides the best course of action is to distract Holmes by threatening Watson and Mary.
In a gem of a scene, Moriarty invites Holmes to meet with him in order to make two things clear. One, he will kill the Watsons. Two, when he does, Holmes will be partly responsible because he’s brought them to Moriarty’s attention.
Harris is terrific in the scene, calm, soothingly reasonable, almost apologetic, and charming but in the practiced way of a temperamentally shy and retiring man, an academic most at home in the library, who has accidentally become something of a public figure and has forced himself to learn to be sociable. He’s almost an attractive and sympathetic figure, except that Harris has also given him a chilling emptiness at his center. Moriarty is all brain, no heart and no soul. He is, in fact, what Holmes is thought to be.
I wouldn’t say that Downey’s Holmes reacts to this as if recoiling from a long look in the mirror. But he is shaken. Of course he’s suddenly afraid for Watson. But he’s also suddenly appalled at himself. It’s dawned on him that what he’s been up to all his career has not been a game that Watson has enjoyed playing with him in spite of himself. He’s never considered the potential consequences for himself, mainly because he’s never doubted his own abilities and even now he’s still fairly sure he’ll be able to beat Moriarty. But suddenly he not only doubts that he can protect Watson and Mary in the process, he realizes that he’s never actually protected Watson in the past. Watson has protected him. What he’s done is risk Watson’s life again and again and it’s only been luck that’s saved him because Holmes himself hasn’t ever even thought about the danger he’s placed his best friend in time and time again.
For the rest of the movie, Downey carries a look in his eyes that mixes fear, guilt, remorse, and the pain of real and potential loss.
This and Downey and Harris’ one other scene together make A Game of Shadows a serious Sherlock Holmes movie. Of course, there’s serious and then there’s serious, and all this new subtext is being played out in an action-adventure movie that comes close to being as outrageous and overblown as a Bond film.
Your willingness to accept A Game of Shadows as a Sherlock Holmes adventure will depend on your willingness to accept the explosions, fireballs, super-slo-mo, freeze frames, rapid zooms, and other 21st Century action adventure movie cliches and Guy Ritchie signature touches.
Meanwhile, Stephen Fry shows up as the delightfully dotty and distracted “Other Holmes.” Kelly Reilly returns, spunkier and feistier, as Mary Marston Watson, who while having less to say than in the first film has more to do. And Paul Anderson is perfect as Moriarty’s right-hand man and chief gunman, Colonel Sebastian Moran, although to appreciate how perfect you may have to have read The Empty House recently and, possibly as well, George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Tiger, the tiger being Moran.
Noomi Rapace is nominally the female lead but she isn’t required to do much more than bring attitude to her scenes. She isn’t given a character to play so much as a job to do, which is to strike poses that tell us just what sort of movie we’re in now. Along with being a Holmes film, a Bond film, and a Guy Ritchie cops and robbers film, A Game of Shadows also takes turns being a Western, a War movie, and a Hitchcock film, with homages to Two Mules for Sister Sarah, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and To Catch a Thief.
But the heart and soul of A Game of Shadows is just what it was in the first movie, the biplay between Downey’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Doctor Watson. Downey’s Holmes will probably never be anyone’s idea of the definitive Sherlock Holmes, but Law’s irritable, hot-tempered, roguish, thug with a touch of a gentleman passing as a gentleman with a touch of thug Watson is either the first or second best Watson ever---it will depend on where Martin Freeman takes his Watson in the next installments of Sherlock.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, directed by Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris, Noomi Rapace, Kelly Reilly, and Stephen Fry, is now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Relevant Mannion re-run: Holmes contra Holmes.