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. 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. I agree that Conan Doyle’s Holmes was certainly more subtle in his approach than the 2009 movie would make him out to be. But 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. In this 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.
A Shift in Dialog
Personally, the most jarring change to the character had nothing to do with his feats of derring-do but stemmed from the dialog. This is something I have noticed in more than one of the recent re-imaginings 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. He makes 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. He often sent them off to do some of the legwork of following up on leads for him. In some cases he was relatively certain it 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.
This change does make sense that with a less dignified and more rough-and-tumble type person. This shit would change how he interacts with others, and so it does feel authentic with the character.
What I thought of the Sherlock Holmes Movie
I absolutely loved the movie. I think it was these shifts of characterization, as well as an interesting narrative and gorgeous sets and costumes, helped draw me to Steampunk in the first place. I loved seeing classic literature turned on its head. It both ‘punked’ of personalities and added elements of the supernatural, alongside fun action, a Gothic feel to sets and costumes.
Plus, it had a great cast with wonderful chemistry. And not just 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. This leaves room for some comedy to off-set the gloom and doom of London on the brink of panic. The supernatural comes in with 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.
Overall, this is a fun adventure set in the steam era that Steampunk fans will enjoy.