To Hell and Reichenbach
A new year this may be, but let us return again to that beloved world where old war wounds migrate, snakes are partial to milk, martial arts styles are somewhat fictitious and first names are oddly mutable: yes, it's time for a look at Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, directed, like its predecessor, by Guy Ritchie. Portraying Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal characters are, once again, Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as Doctor Watson, while Eddie Marsan, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly and Geraldine James briefly reprise their roles from the first film as Lestrade, Irene Adler, Mary Morstan and Mrs Hudson respectively. New to proceedings this time around are Stephen Fry as Mycroft, Paul Anderson as Sebastian Moran, and Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty.
Only very loosely following on from the previous movie, this film finds Moriarty behind a Machiavellian plot to start the First World War twenty years early (pretty much the same plan he had when he appeared in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, but I am in no position to criticise his lack of originality as I used the same joke on that occasion too). Holmes and Watson are, of course, on the case, only mildly distracted by Watson's looming nuptials. Their pursuit of the master criminal leads them across Europe, from Paris into Germany, and beyond, to a final confrontation high in the Swiss Alps.
The story is a very, very, very loose adaptation of The Final Problem, but you have to be on the ball to really spot this, as the signs are mostly hidden beneath many layers of comedy squabbling between Downey and Law, and also spectacular action set-pieces. Nevertheless this is still an improvement on the wholly original and somehow slightly unsatisfying story from Sherlock Holmes. And it's very apparent that the writers have done their research and really delved deep into Conan Doyle's works – there are so many little details in this film which add nothing to the story, but will mean the world to Sherlockians (Holmes' birth year is got right, as is the name of Moriarty's most famous work), that it would be very difficult to give this film a completely hard time.
Nevertheless, I still don't think either of the Ritchie films are really premium Holmes, though for a while I struggled to settle on why. I don't think it's entirely down to the presentation of the two leads (though I do find Downey's Holmes to be a bit too mad and dishevelled, and Law's Watson a bit too irascible, for either to really convince), but more the way that the scripts of these films cheerfully detonate the structure of the original stories. You know – Holmes and Watson are enjoying breakfast in Baker Street, someone arrives with a seemingly-inexplicable problem, Holmes springs into action, etc, etc. Holmes as a martial artist and self-employed gentleman adventurer is by no means utterly inconsistent with Conan Doyle, but the very texture of the stories in these films is not recognisable as that of the classic Holmes canon.
Indeed, in this film there's a sequence where Holmes and Watson have to machine-gun their way out of an enemy base which is much more like a Bond film than anything else. The action in this movie is well-mounted and the whole thing has been lavishly put together, with sumptuous production values and cinematography. And the movie is stuffed with moments verging on the brilliant – every time Holmes and Moriarty have a scene together, for example – even if things do occasionally get a bit silly (some of Holmes' disguises stretch credulity to its utmost limits).
And whatever you may make of the two lead roles, there is some fantastic acting going on here – Noomi Rapace is a bit underused as the female lead, but Stephen Fry is terrific as Mycroft (revealing yet another new side to his talents), and Jared Harris is even better as Moriarty. Of the major Sherlockian characters, Moriarty is probably the easiest to present successfully, simply because his appearances in the canon are so limited and as a result interpreters have much more latitude – nevertheless, there they've done an excellent job of staying conspicuously faithful to Conan Doyle while creating a character who seems wholly of a piece with Ritchie's conception of this milieu.
Our time is curiously blessed – received wisdom has it that in years gone by, every generation had one and only one Sherlock Holmes worthy of consideration, whether that be William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett. And yet we are lucky enough to have both Downey's version of the character and Benedict Cumberbatch's to enjoy, the latter in the BBC's Sherlock.
Sherlock is back on TV at the moment, promising its own take on The Final Problem in a matter of days (at the time of writing), and it will no doubt be interesting to compare the two. Sherlock may not have the big Hollywood money behind it, with the associated production values, but in terms of wit and intelligence and – above all else – fidelity to the tone of the original stories (if not always the characterisations), for me it outguns the Guy Ritchie movies in virtually every department.
But, that said, this movie is an enjoyably frenetic and inventive way of spending a couple of hours, and certainly better than the first one. Is A Game of Shadows a classic interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes mythos? Absolutely not, but then I'm not sure it was ever intended to be. Is it a fun and satisfying piece of blockbuster entertainment? Yeah, pretty much – so I suppose we should settle for that.