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Sherlock is back! May 6, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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We’ve decided that May is Sherlock Holmes month here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. Yesterday, Silence Dogood found a new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz (Mulholland Books, 2011), at our local library. And tonight, the second season of “Sherlock” launches on PBS.

For Holmes fanatics like Silence and our friend Ben (who has actually penned a Holmes novel himself), this is very heady stuff. First off, Mr. Horowitz is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, and his novel has been authorized by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate, the first time they have ever leant their imprimatur to a non-family member. We’re looking forward to a wonderful read. And tonight’s episode of “Sherlock” brings the World’s Greatest Detective together with his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, and “The Woman,” Irene Adler.

Mind you, we had a few issues with the series’s first season. We really enjoyed the wonderfully-named Benedict Cumberbatch—a name straight out of Dickens—as Holmes (though we still think he’d better as Dr. Who) and Martin Freeman as Watson. And we loved whichever of the show’s creators (alas, we forget which one it was) as Holmes’s older brother Mycroft. We thought the way the show depicted Holmes’s thought process was nothing short of brilliant, and we appreciated the way they kept the element of humor that made the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films so entertaining, but this time made sure it wasn’t at Watson’s expense.

On the other hand, we found the Moriarty woefully weak—a fatal flaw in any Holmes effort—and the plots far too transparent. We’re hoping for better things from this season, though we have our doubts about the decision to turn poor Irene Adler from an actress into a dominatrix. Thing is, she was the actual victim in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” rather than the king who enlisted Holmes’s efforts at protecting his reputation from her. It will be interesting to see if the same holds true in “A Scandal in Belgravia”!

Holmes lovers, check your TV listings and let us know what you think!


Would the real Sherlock please stand up. November 30, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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All three bloggers here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders, are huge Sherlock Holmes fans. We even agree on who’s the best Holmes to date, and sorry, Jeremy Brett fans, it’s Basil Rathbone. But we all feel that Brett’s interpretation of Holmes as a twitchy, gleeful bipolar addict has redefined the character in such a significant way that no other actor can take on the role without taking Brett’s interpretation into account.

This was the fault we found with Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Holmes in the recent BBC series “Sherlock.” His marble features gave nothing away. We felt that Mr. Cumberbatch would make an ideal James Bond or Dr. Who, but he lacked the high-strung, jumpy, Gollumlike quality that informs Holmes’s character. Holmes is not just smarter than other people; he’s faster. By the time you could blink, he’d have leapt up, dashed out of the flat and into the street, and be off in a hansom. His thoughts and emotions would flash across his face like lights on a radar screen. Those emotions might resonate more with someone with Asperger’s Syndrome—high-functioning autism—than with your average guy; but there was never any doubt that Holmes’s emotions were in play and at a very high level.

So who would be our pick for Holmes today? For years, Silence and our friend Ben have championed Johnny Depp for the role, since he performed it so brilliantly as Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” If you weren’t told what film you were watching, you’d naturally assume it was a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Richard Saunders suggests that Jude Law, who played Watson to Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes, could play a brilliant Holmes in his own right.

But today, Silence introduced a new contender for the role. She’d been watching “The Buccaneers,” a BBC series based on an Edith Wharton novel, and had been struck by the performance of James Frain as the high-strung, eccentric Duke.

“Ben! Remember James Frain as Thomas Cromwell in ‘The Tudors’ and how fabulous we thought he was? There’s our Sherlock Holmes!” Silence effused.

Our friend Ben certainly did remember Frain’s beautifully nuanced performance, going from sensitive theologian to torturer, and I had to agree with Silence’s choice. James Frain would make a fabulous Holmes.

But in that case, who would be Watson? Starting with “The Tudors” made the choice obvious. The perfect pairing would be James Frain as Holmes and Jeremy Northam as Watson. Jeremy Northam played Sir Thomas More in “The Tudors,” and Jane Austen fans may recall him as Mr. Knightley in the Gwyneth Paltrow adaptation of “Emma.” He is a consummate actor, skilled at playing good-hearted, down-to-earth characters, and would make a marvelous Watson to Frain’s Holmes.

Richard then pointed out that Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who starred as Henry VIII in “The Tudors,” would be the perfect Moriarty, Holmes’s evil arch-rival. Which of course led us to the inevitable conclusion that Natalie Dormer, who was so great as Anne Boleyn in the series, would be an ideal choice as Irene Adler, the woman Holmes admires most. 

So please, directors, listen up: Let’s see James Frain and Jeremy Northam as Holmes and Watson. Talk about a dynamic duo! Add Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalie Dormer to the mix, and your Holmes series or film would be unstoppable. With these talented actors in the roles, the game would really be afoot!

Poor Sherlock Holmes. January 10, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood finally treated ourselves to the new Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes, Jude Law as Watson, and Mark Strong as the villain, Lord Blackwood, last night. Rabid Holmes fans, we’d seen the preview last December—that’s December 2008—and had been waiting impatiently ever since, a whole damned year, for the movie to come out. Critics have accused director Guy Ritchie (yes, that is Madonna’s ex) of showcasing sadism in the film, but in our view, it couldn’t touch the sadism displayed by Warner Bros. in showing previews for a movie a year ahead of its release.

Perhaps anything would fall short after a year’s anticipation, but we were appalled when we saw the film. From the trailers, we knew this would be a swashbuckling version of Holmes, but that didn’t faze us: We’ve enjoyed many alternative interpretations of Holmes in the past, from “Young Sherlock Holmes” to “Without a Clue.” Nor do we subscribe to the idea that Jeremy Brett was the ultimate Sherlock Holmes, and there should never be another. Though we respect the twitchy, mannered, ADHD-burdened interpretation Brett eventually arrived at as plausible, if repellant, we doubt that this was Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s vision of the great detective. Our own favorite Holmes and Watson to date are still Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. However far Mr. Bruce took the ever-clueless but goodhearted Watson’s awe of Holmes’s deductive powers towards the realm of farce, the seeds of this can definitely be found in the original stories, and we enjoy the relief of humor in the face of Holmes’s ever-serious demeanor. But we still await the definitive Holmes.

Part of our disappointment in the current production lies in our admiration for its stars. We have the highest respect for the acting abilities of Robert Downey, Jr. His virtuoso performance in “The Soloist” should have won him an Oscar, and we’ve never before been disappointed by any of his performances. Jude Law is another highly gifted actor, whose performances, like RDJ’s, are notable for their diversity, from “The Talented Mr. Ripley” to “Cold Mountain.” But we agree that his greatest performance was a tour-de-force in “Gattaca.” Apart from Anthony Hopkins’s various star turns, we’re not sure we’ve ever seen a stronger performance anytime, anywhere. And Mark Strong has been a favorite of ours ever since we saw his distinctly distinctive performance as Mr. Knightley in a BBC version of Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

Having seen the preview of this “Sherlock Holmes,” we certainly weren’t expecting an attempt at canonical interpretation. It looked much more like “Sherlock Holmes Meets James Bond.” But that didn’t bother us at all; we’d seen and read so many imaginative interpretations of Holmes, and enjoyed many of them. We were looking forward to a good romp.

But after 2 hours and 14 minutes, we had to admit to defeat. For a Sherlock Holmes film to be successful, the villain has to be strong, compelling, believable, a worthy opponent for Holmes. But Holmes himself has to completely command the screen whenever he appears on it.

Mark Strong lived up to his role. As Lord Blackwood, he was an excellent villain, even though the weird black leather coat and slicked-back hairdo he sported towards the end of the film were more reminiscent of “Dracula” than anything the Victorian era would have produced for its ruling classes. When he was onscreen, you couldn’t look away. Too bad they didn’t cast him as Holmes. 

Our friend Ben and Silence can’t figure out what went wrong with RDJ in this film. Far from dominating the screen, he was dwarfed by it. He and Mark Strong were the only actors who managed to convey genuine emotion, genuine range, but he never rose to the role of Holmes. In fact, Mr. Strong and the actor who played his gigantic French henchman gave the finest performances in the film. RDJ, by contrast, was a buffoonish character, the clown of the Three Musketeers, a Charlie Chaplinesque figure trying to mime his way through the role to get some laughs. There was none of the insightful, restless, high-strung brilliance that should characterize Holmes. There was no sense of a brilliant mind inhabiting a body, as if by accident. You got the sense that it was only Watson who kept the Holmes myth alive by supporting (and often leading) him at every turn. Our friend Ben has to wonder if RDJ had never read Holmes, so that Guy Ritchie’s script was the only version of Holmes he’d encountered. If so, that would at least explain the performance.

You’d think all this would shine a bright light on Jude Law’s Watson. Conan Doyle obviously patterned Watson after himself, a doctor who was less than interested in his practice, but cherished other ambitions; a robust, Queen-and-country-loving, highly moral normal man who would serve as a foil to Holmes’s wildly variable eccentricities, admiring his flatmate’s genius while deploring his shortcomings. And yes, Law’s Watson does live up to these parameters. The problem is that Law’s Watson isn’t really human. Instead, he’s a two-dimensional action figure. Even RDJ brought emotion to his role, but Jude Law, never. Like the Irene Adler figure in the film, he’s all knee-jerk action and no plausible emotion. We’ve read many reviews that proclaim that this is Jude Law’s finest role, ever.  We suggest that these idiots, we mean, critics, watch “Gattaca” and see what Mr. Law is truly capable of.

Oh, dear. Please, oh please, give us Johnny Depp as Sherlock Holmes before he gets too old! Our friend Ben and Silence are confident that he could carry it off, maybe, in fact, create the definitive Holmes. But who on earth would be Watson? Suggestions, please!

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.