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Sherlock Holmes alert! May 21, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was thrilled to see that there’s finally going to be a new Sherlock Holmes movie, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson. Mind you, there are a couple of problems. First, it’s not going to be released until Christmas. And second, from what our friend Ben saw in the trailer, it’s not exactly the Sherlock Holmes of Conan Doyle, but more like Sherlock Holmes meets the Three Musketeers, James Bond, and Inspector Clouseau. And with Guy Ritchie directing, our friend Ben has to wonder if there won’t be a bit of Madonna in his Irene Adler. But whatever the case, after Jeremy Brett, it has to be a relief.

I know, I know. “Everybody” loves the Jeremy Brett interpretation of Holmes. “Everybody” thinks it’s the definitive interpretation. Well, not our friend Ben. I’d have described Brett’s Holmes as reptilian, with those glittering, inhuman eyes staring out from all those twitches. Brett’s Holmes is cold, unlikeable, all surface brilliance with nothing at the core. Sadly, this had come to be a standard interpretation of Holmes well before Brett’s star turn in the role. Much as I love Basil Rathbone, his Holmes, though considerably more workmanlike than Brett’s manic interpretation, was also essentially cold. And he knew it: I once read an interview in which Basil Rathbone proclaimed that he did not like Sherlock Holmes, and for that reason. I suspect that Jeremy Brett would have said the same. His Holmes was not only cold, but old.

Given that moviegoers have become used to seeing an, ahem, “mature” Holmes, it’s easy to forget that Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’s creator, portrayed him as a young, vigorous man. He’s in his twenties when we meet him for the first time, and in his twenties and thirties through most of the action. Think about this for a minute, and how it would change your perception of Sherlock Holmes’s behavior if you considered him in the light of, say, the latest crop of interns at your office, or perhaps a young doctor doing his residency at the local hospital, or a contestant on “American Idol.”

And here’s something else to think about: The Holmes of Conan Doyle is the quintessential Arthurian knight, the shining star of the Round Table. He defends damsels in distress; he fights for his Queen with a pure heart. His inherent purity, the unassailable morality at his core, is what draws Dr. Watson’s admiration and loyalty, even in the face of Holmes’s surface weaknesses and the trials of his eccentricity. People who have seen the Holmes of the screen probably think of him in terms of his brusqueness or outright rudeness to, for example, the King of Bohemia, and certainly he didn’t suffer fools—or deception or pomposity—gladly, or at all, if he could avoid it. But there are numerous examples in the stories where he is gentle, patient, and kind, especially towards women and the poor and suffering. His behavior in these instances can best be described as tender, hardly a word most people would associate with Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, our friend Ben is convinced that it is the moral steadfastness, the essential goodness, of Sherlock Holmes that has made him an enduring icon for well over a hundred years, long after his methods of detection have become so familiar they fail to enthrall, his eccentricities can be explained away by modern psychology, and his famous “seven per cent solution” has ceased to shock. It is the man himself, not the surface glitter and showmanship, that continues to draw us, as it drew Dr. Watson, long after other fictional detectives have mouldered away on their library shelves.

Robert Downey Jr. is both a fine actor and a warm man, and our friend Ben hopes he brings some of that warmth to his interpretation of Holmes. I admire him and his costar Jude Law very much, so of course I’m looking forward to the new film. But I’m still waiting for the definitive Holmes, waiting for someone to cast Johnny Depp in the role before he gets too old. Please, directors! Don’t make me wait too long.