Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Sherlock Holmes Double Review

'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' and 'Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia.'

It’s been a highly Sherlockian year for me so far. New Year’s Day saw the second series of Sherlock begin with A Scandal in Belgravia, while on the 2nd I took in the second of Guy Ritchie’s cinematic takes on the legendary sleuth, with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Two sequels, two different takes on Holmes. Both the BBC and Hollywood versions are hugely successful, modernised tellings of Sherlock Holmes tales that have taken as much criticism as they have praise. While each production is based, primarily, on a different Conan Doyle story, they each feature several of the same characters and elements. The two productions have many differences, but also many similarities, so I thought it’d be fun to compare and contrast them.

Before I get on with the job of overanalysing the productions and tearing them apart, I just want to say that I found them both immensely enjoyable. The first run of Sherlock on BBC1 won me over immediately, and the second series, so far, hasn’t disappointed. While the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie didn’t impress me as much, I did enjoy it, once I stopped being a snob and finally watched it, and the sequel is a great improvement. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t elements that I’m dying to have a little rant about. First things first: A Game of Shadows is mostly informed by The Final Problem, the great showdown story which introduced Moriarty, and in which he and Holmes take one another down. A Scandal in Belgravia is, as the title makes obvious, a version of A Scandal in Bohemia, the classic story featuring Miss Irene Adler. However, both alter and embellish the stories hugely; also, Moriarty and Adler feature in each production, albeit briefly in their guest roles.

Since Miss Adler is the cause of the most controversy, I’ll start with her. She is, of course, brilliant, dominant, charming and sexy in both stories, although she makes a fairly fleeting appearance in Shadows as a link to her more substantial appearance in the first film. The Shadows version, played by Rachel McAdams, is more faithful to the canonical character; an American adventuress capable of taking on Holmes at his own game, albeit one who has a career as a professional thief. The Belgravia version is the one that has upset the diehard Sherlockians and Daily Mail readers. In updating the character, Steven Moffat has taken the decision to make her a dominatrix. Lara Pulver excels in portraying this sexed-up version of the character, and Adler’s certainly very impressive, although it’s questionable whether this update is - to use a horrible word - appropriate. Although fiendishly intelligent, this version of Miss Adler relies less on her intellect than her physical charms and sexual power. The Guardian has an article which addresses this far more eloquently than I can. While the compromising photograph of the original story had to be updated to something far more insalubrious to make an impression today, was it necessary to make Adler, as Mycroft puts it, a sex worker? Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with such a path in life, but are we supposed to admire this aspect of the character? What’s more, here she is merely a puppet of Moriarty (although she fares little better at his hand in Shadows). Is Irene Adler a confident woman, unrepressed and irrepressible, willing to use her charms to get exactly what she wants? Or is she merely an expensive prostitute with a high opinion of herself, in way over her head?

While I’m ambivalent as to the treatment of Adler in the two productions, I’m absolutely certain as to which version of Moriarty I prefer. Jared Harris is astonishingly good in the role in A Game of Shadows. As well as physically resembling the astronomer Simon Newcomb (on whom Moriarty is thought to have been loosely based), he perfectly captures the two contrasting facets of the Professor’s character. He is believable both as an acclaimed academic, and as a disturbed criminal mastermind. Though sinister, he is never obvious, his sadism kept in check for those moments that it will most horrify us. On the other hand, Sherlock’s Jim Moriarty doesn’t work for me at all. Although Andrew Scott is a gifted actor and imbues him with a degree of menace, the character is unrestrained, over-the-top and only faintly recognisable as the great criminal genius we expect to see. Moffat and Gatiss here seem to be trying to recreate the character along a similar fashion as Russell T. Davies did with the Master in Doctor Who, but it is nowhere near as effective. To quote my sister, he’s “a bit too try-hard.”

The other big addition to the cast of canonical characters in Shadows is Mycroft Holmes, who also steps into the limelight for much of A Scandal in Belgravia. Mark Gatiss remains impeccable in the role for the BBC series, studied and very classy. While he’s a bit trim for a Mycroft, he has created a character who convinces as Sherlock’s brother, at once totally aloof yet displaying subtle fraternal affection. It’s a treat to see more of him in the latest episode. Shadows, on the other hand, casts Stephen Fry in the role, a perfect physical match for Mycroft and easily up to the part, but decided to use him primarily as comic relief. This approach works well, and there are some fun scenes between ‘Mykey’ and ‘Sherly,’ but it would have been nice to have the formidable Mycroft played straight.

Other characters come and go in both productions, with variable success. Mrs Hudson, played by Una Stubbs, remains the heart of Sherlock, both the series and the character, while poor Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) finally gets some character development as Sherlock insults her one time too many. A Game of Shadows wastes Mrs Hudson, but introduces Colonel Moran played by Paul Anderson with thuggish charm. He’s a great henchman for Moriarty but it’s hard to credit him as part of the officer class. Noomi Rapace plays Madame Simza, a Gypsy heroine who’s new to the plot; she’s good fun but a little inconsequential, not really making much difference to events after her link to the major plot is revealed.

And what of Holmes and Watson themselves? Robert Downey Jr. is just as watchable as ever, but his cinematic Holmes is still a cardboard cut-out version of the character. Jude Law totally eclipses him as Dr. Watson, here taking on world-shattering events and an interrupted honeymoon with more grace than anyone could be expected to. Law was perhaps the best thing about the first film, and remains a commanding presence in the sequel. Back on the BBC, Benedict Cumberbatch is inarguably the definitive Holmes for a generation. His cold intellect is softened considerably in Belgravia, not only by his attraction to Adler but his more human friendship with Watson, yet he remains, for the most part, a detached intellectual force, and an unknowable quantity. Martin Freeman is still impressive as a very human, very likeable, very ordinary Watson, but it’d be nice to see a little more of his military background come to the fore again.

The big difference in the two productions is not the settings or the plots. It’s in the action, and the violence, and no more clearly than in the case of Sherlock Holmes himself. Cumberbatch’s Holmes uses violence, yes, and the series is certainly not wanting for action, but his character is violent in extremis. He uses his fists to defend himself, and gets angry only at the most heinous of provocations (no one lays a finger on Mrs Hudson, got it?). For Downey’s Holmes, violence is a way of life, a standard part of his investigative technique. Although his offensive and defensive strategy’s are well thought through, he’s just spoiling for a fight all through the film. You’d think he deliberately conducted his investigations in such a way as to cross as many hoodlums and henchmen as possible, to keep his fists busy.

Otherwise, there is a great deal of similarity between the two productions. Both are modernised versions of Holmes stories, drawing heavily on the back catalogue. Both rely heavily on humour during the set-up. Shadows actually gets down to business quite a bit faster, while Belgravia spends a good deal of time throwing us cute jokes - the deerstalker being the punchline, but I enjoyed ‘The Speckled Blonde’ and other such atrocities of punnery. Both use nudity to distract, although Sherlock mostly goes the sexy route, with Lara Pulver and Benedict Cumberbatch in the buff; Shadows goes for comedy nakedness, with a half-dressed, dragged up Downey and, for some reason, a nude Stephen Fry. Which was enjoyed by all, and will never be spoken of again. Both focus on the deep but fractious friendship between Holmes and Watson; and both Guy Ritchie and Paul McGuigan use stylish directorial flourishes to illustrate Holmes’s flashes of insight. Fundamentally, both A Game of Shadows and A Scandal in Belgravia are fun, fast- paced affairs that are more interested in wowing us with visually arresting sequences than good, in-depth deductive reasoning. I enjoyed them both, but, with two more episodes of Sherlock this year and a third movie in the works, I hope we get to see Holmes and Holmes get back down to the basics in future.


  1. Always a pleasure to meet a Sherlockian :)

    Excellent review of the two adaptations.

    Have you tried the Russian adaptation with Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes.


    1. Thanks for the comment! I haven't tried the Russian version, but I shall be sure too.


    2. I got to finally watch 'A Scandal in Belgravia' last Sunday.

      Here is my review .


    3. Interesting review. Clearly you didn't enjoy it as much as I did; however, I agree with a lot of your points. They certainly deprived Adler of much of her true significance. And I'm not a fan of 'spoilt-brat' Moriarty either, although I do feel he improved in the season's final episode.

    4. Nice to know that we share the same thoughts on BBC version of Moriarty.

      On the other hand, I absolutely loved Jared Harris's take on Moriarty in 'A Game of Shadows'. Check out my review . I believe his is the definitive performance as Moriarty!

    5. Very good review. Is Harris the definitive Moriarty? I'm not sure, but very possibly. I definitely think he's the best thing in the movie.