Posted Sunday night, September 30, 2018.
“Sherlock, I am your father.”: Jared Harris (foreground) as Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty in Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”. Harris’ Moriarty is the very best Moriarty I’ve seen on screen, a distinction I don’t expect to be challenged by the newest Sherlock Holmes movie, even though Moriarty is going to be played by Ralph Fiennes.
There’s a new Sherlock Holmes movie coming out in which Ralph Fiennes is playing Moriarty.
This is great news!
I’d be happier to report there’s a new Sherlock Holmes movie in which Fiennes is playing Sherlock Holmes. Fiennes would have made a perfect Holmes if someone had thought to cast him as Holmes twenty years ago, and why didn’t they? Long before “Sherlock’s” Benedict Cumberbatch and “Elementary’s” Jonny Lee Miller took on the case, Robert Stephens, Nicol Williamson, and Christopher Plummer had done away with the popular convention of having Holmes played by solidly middle-aged actors past their youthful primes. Conan Doyle’s Holmes is in his late twenties when he and Watson meet in “A Study in Scarlet”; So is Watson. More on that.) But if after Cumberbatch and Miller we’re ready for the return of a Holmes of a certain age, Fiennes would be my first choice. (Jude Law’s my second. More on that, too.) And he’ll make an excellent Moriarty because he’d make an excellent Holmes. After all, Holmes and Moriarty are mirror images of each other.
As Holmes himself has observed in his numerous cinematic and literary incarnations, it’s fortunate for the citizens of London he did not turn his talents to crime. Moriarty is what Holmes would have been had he done so.
This is an idea that runs through almost all the Holmes movies and television adaptations I’ve seen and the books and stories I’ve read that weren’t written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Doyle himself wasn’t much interested in Moriarty and seems to have come up with him solely as a device to kill off Holmes. But it’s there in William Gillette’s play, which had Doyle’s approval. That play, which was the 1899 equivalent of a movie blockbuster in that theater-going age, introduced into the popular imagination much of what we now accept as Holmesian canon---the deerstalker hat, the Meerschaum pipe (Gillette used one because it didn’t hide his face from the audience.) and Moriarty as a character with a real presence and not just a resume. Basil Rathbone’s Holmes---the real Sherlock Holmes to Pop Mannion and Old Father Blonde’s generation---was really Rathbone’s take on Gillette’s. Interestingly, though, the Rathbone movies don’t make much use of Moriarty.
But in “The Seven Percent Solution” Moriarty as a criminal mastermind and Holmes’ nemesis is a Freudian invention of Holmes himself, a figment of Holmes’ own imagining, dreamed into existence to star as the villain in the Oedipal fantasy fueling Holmes’ addiction to cocaine. And in “Sherlock”, Moriarty, although very real, is at the same time something of a fantasized character, invented, however, by Moriarty himself, using his insight into Holmes’ insecurities and neuroses to present Holmes with a nightmare version of himself and manipulate him into giving in to self-doubt and self-disgust.
“I’m the real you,” Moriarty is saying, “the you you’re terrified of being seen as. The high-functioning sociopath you joke that you are. A petulant, whining, self-infatuated overgrown child nobody decent would love or admire.”
Andrew Scott is hard to take when he’s in this mode, partly because he over-does it, but mainly because we’re afraid we see in his Moriarty precisely what Moriarty wants Holmes to see him, the real nature of Sherlock Holmes.
The to my mind very best screen version of Moriarty, Jared Harris in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, comes at it in a different way. He offers himself to Holmes as a surrogate father. “Join me on the Dark Side,” he more or less says, presenting himself as a more reasonable and milder-mannered Darth Vader to Robert Downey’s jittery, less steady-minded, more self-doubting and self-loathing Holmes as Luke Skywalker.
But to get back to Fiennes as Moriarty, I can see him as the first Moriarty explicitly personifying the idea that Moriarty is Holmes’ double. It would defend, however, on who’s playing Holmes opposite him.
And here’s the problem.
In this new Sherlock Holmes movie, it’s Will Farrell.
John C. Reilly plays Watson.
I’ve got no objections to a Sherlock Holmes comedy. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is essentially a comic take on Holmes. (Keeping in mind that comedy and tragedy are a single two-faced god) The joke (and the source of pathos) is that this is what Holmes would be like if he’d come of age in a 21st Century society less forgiving of eccentricity and more intolerant of genius and exceptional talent that isn’t athletic than what was still a Dickensian London when Doyle introduced him. A kid growing up with Holmes’ singular talents and powerful intellect in this day and age would not be popular---as he is in “Young Sherlock Holmes”, still one of my favorite Holmes movies. He’d swiftly learn to hate in himself qualities he’s also proud of---think of that Holmes avatar Adrian Monk’s lament: “It’s a blessing and a curse.”---and he’d become withdrawn, introverted, and anti-social as a defense, and vulnerable to Moriarty’s mind games.
Doyle’s Holmes is not anti-social. It’s just that the society he enjoys most is that of the demi-monde and he enjoys it out of Watson’s sight. Watson describes Holmes as a bohemian with the implication that he himself is not. He’s a more conventional Victorian professional man. A lot goes on in Holmes’ life we don’t get to see because Watson isn’t on the scene to write about it. He’s busy taking care of his family and his medical practice.There are long periods between the adventures Watson chronicles during which he and Holmes are out of contact and he has no idea what Holmes is up to. But one of the things Holmes up to is enjoying the company of the denizens of London’s lower depths he regards as friends.
So Holmes isn’t a high-functioning sociopath. What he is is impatient and in his impatience he sometimes forgets his manners. He’s also careful not let emotions get in the way of his taking in the facts. What he wants is “data” and not what clients and witnesses feel about the data that have brought them to Holmes. The point is that Holmes is at bottom a sociable, amiable, and compassionate character. He just needs Watson to run interference for him and remind him to play nice. Which is what makes Holmes a comic and not a tragic hero.
So the idea of a comedic take on Holmes and Watson isn’t outrageous on the face of it. And it’s been done.
Some critics and fans insist Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”, which the creators of “Sherlock” credit as an inspiration, is a comedy. If it is, I’ve never gotten the joke, unless it’s simply that Holmes is not quite the paragon of virtue and exemplar of cold-blooded intellect and reason Watson portrays him as in his stories. That doesn’t strike me as much of a joke or, in fact, as a joke at all. It’s implicit in Doyle’s stories, which is to say, in Watson’s own writing. A recurring gag in Doyle’s stories is Holmes’ criticisms of Watson’s accounts of their adventures, starting with Watson’s presenting them as adventures. Watson romanticizes everything, Holmes complains, presumably including Holmes himself.
The conceit of “Without a Clue” is that Watson more than romanticizes. He invents things out of whole-cloth, including the character of Sherlock Holmes. I gave it the skip when it was in the theaters way back when because the trailers made it look painfully unfunny, an embarrassment for its stars Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley. Aside from its idiomatic use, travesty is a technical term for a deliberately hostile form of humor. “Without a Clue” looked to me like a travesty and I’ve never had the urge to find out if I’m right.
But Guy Ritchie’s two Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson are very enjoyable buddy comedies based on a fact that Doyle tended to downplay, that Holmes are dangerous men and a pair of mutually encouraging thrill-seekers, and Gene Wilder’s “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” is an outright farce. It’s not exactly hilarious and not that well-made, but it works as well as it does because Wilder had the good sense not to cast himself as a parody Sherlock---or as his character, the great detective's jealous younger brother, calls him “Sheer-luck!”---and at its heart it's an affectionate send-up of Sherlock Holmes, roundaboutly satirizing Sheer-luck through the younger brother’s constant attempts to one-up his famous older brother.
So “Holmes & Watson” could be funny, It’s probably too much to hope it’ll be to other Sherlock Holmes movies and TV shows what “Galaxy Quest” is to “Star Trek”, but it could be what “Spaceballs” is to “Star Wars”, if Farrell and Reilly play it straight and don’t just goof around; if it’s more “Talledaga Nights” than “Stepbrothers”.
I doubt I’ll go see it, but if I do, it’ll probably be best if I see it but do not observe.