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Revising Sherlock: Guy Ritchie and the Detective

Revising Sherlock: Guy Ritchie and the British Detective

By Binoy Kampmark

Guy Ritchie’s reputation has suffered a bit over time. His latest effort at bringing a markedly revised version of Sherlock Holmes to the screen just might save him, though the critics might disagree. In his latest effort, we have something akin to Miami Vice on Baker Street, a scene packed with the pyrotechnics of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings wedded to Victorian London. This effort is hard to digest, which is not to say that is wasn’t a brave one.

For one thing, the blockbuster hurriedness of the film does not allow for details. Where are the Baker Street irregulars and informants which make Holmes so effective in the underworld? What of the close, some might almost argue homoerotic relationship between Holmes and Watson Ritchie insists on drawing out? Mark Strong, who plays Dr. Blackwood, is laborious. Robert Downey, Jr. is sometimes unconvincing as the revisionist Holmes and, perversely, Dr. Watson more than dapper and competent in the role played by Jude Law. Where Holmes is traditionally seen as haughty, imperialist and cynical, we have a modest, dandyish character qualified by flaws and more than happy to throw punches.

Many seem to be having a go at depicting Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation. A Russian production made a good stab at it between 1979 and 1986, where Vasily Borisovic Livanov provided an exemplary interpretation of Holmes. Another version, Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue (1988), farcically painted Holmes as an inept drunk thespian created by a gifted Dr. Watson.

There is little doubt that Ritchie was right to reappraise the stock perceptions of Holmes. This production makes an effort to efface many assumptions, whether they come from Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone. For one thing, Downey Jr.’s stature is hardly like ‘Holmes’ in the sense that Rathbone intended it in his productions from the 1950s. This Holmes is more rake than prude, freed of the deerstalker hat which we find in the illustrations of Sidney Paget in the Strand Magazine publications of the 1890s. In its place, we have a fedora. Good, smart dress is discarded for more workmanlike, digging detective wear.

In truth, the first distortions to the Holmes character can be said to stem from Paget’s own pen. Doyle did take issue with the illustrator’s tendency to smoothen the hard edges of his detective, making him a more ‘handsome’ figure than intended. Watson is more substantial, less the plodder than the contemplating figure. Both have a penchant for weapons and forceful apprehensions.

The inspiration for re-envisaging Holmes for the screen lies with producer and storywriter Lionel Wigram. ‘I saw less of a stiff Victorian or Edwardian gent and more of a damaged, vulnerable man. Yes, he’s a genius with great energies for catching criminals. But he’s also likely to spend two weeks recovering on his couch afterwards’. There are also various other appearances: we find Holmes’ a somewhat less formidable character – take the woman Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), said to have outwitted him at stages in the past.

With this production, Ritchie has moved off his métier of gangster flicks (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, RockNRolla) to a classic of literature, and while it is riddled with imperfections, it will no doubt spawn lucrative sequels and entertain enthusiasts.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:


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