More by an accident of arcane knowledge than any superior kind of deductive reasoning power, I knew who had committed the crime within the first ten minutes. I claim no credit. It simply represents a sometimes misspent youth during which I seem to have picked up a vast array of information only useful when teaming up in a pub quiz, or solving crosswords and television crime cases. Alternatively, my Alzheimer’s is kicking in and, even though I’m often not entirely sure what day of the week it is, I’m suddenly able to remember stories that I read more than fifty years ago. That said, the adaptation of Shoscombe Old Place by Gary Hopkins is crisp and to the point (The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, Season 1, episode 3). There’s only a little padding and the 50 minutes plus ads passed quite satisfactorily until I was able to pop the champagne along with Mrs Hudson (Rosalie Williams). We’d both used inside information to back the right horse.
So what’s the story? Well, here’s Sir Robert Norberton (Robert Ellis), a trainer with a stable full of potentially great horses at Shoscombe Old Place except, despite all the fertiliser in the stables, not all is roses in the garden. The trainer is up to his eyes in debt and being harassed by his creditors. He needs a win win to avoid financial disaster. If there’s a silver lining in all this, it’s that he’s not the owner of the rather fine hall, the stables or the horses. His sister, Lady Beatrice Falder (Elizabeth Weaver) has a life interest in the all the property with the title then passing over to another relative. To some extent, a personal bankruptcy would not unduly damage his family’s position. Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) gets involved because John Mason (Frank Grimes), a concerned head of stable, hears that Samuel Brewer (James Coyle), one key creditor, has gone missing. When allied to other information, there’s clear evidence suggesting that Sir Robert may have killed Brewer. Apart from this speculation, life at Shoscombe proceeds more or less as normal except for the dismissal of one of the servants, allegedly for stealing, and the banishment of the dog. Lady Beatrice and her maid, Carrie Evans (Denise Black) are routinely seen by the indoor staff and on their daily carriage ride around the estate. We should also note an early screen appearance for Jude Law as Joe Barnes, a wannabe jockey.
So what we have is Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke displaced out of London to Dunham Massey Hall near Altrincham disguised as Shoscombe. Having installed themselves at a local pub, they acquire the banished dog and enjoy scenic walks around the countryside. There are tendencies to the Gothic as a ruined Church is given a “reputation” by the superstitious locals (reinforced by Patrick Lau, the director insisting on candid shots of gargoyles and muffled fiendish laughter from stage left). All of which means Shoscombe Old Place is reasonably entertaining once you look past the showiness of some of the direction.
For reviews of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes series, see:
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1991)
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Illustrious Client (1991)
The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991)
The question, I suppose, is what we should expect to see when the title of the film mentions Sherlock Holmes. At the first available opportunity, should Sherlock say, “Elementary, my dear Watson” (a phrase never actually used by Conan Doyle), should he display his deductive reasoning while playing the violin, smoking the tobacco from his Persian slipper or mainlining seven-percent solution, or should he wear a deerstalker and an Inverness cape? There are many possible stereotypes that could be adopted. . .
Well, defying convention at every possible turn, here comes Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, an action-packed adventure directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law in their second outing as the dynamic duo. To add a little European sparkle for the box-office ratings, there’s a moderate role for Noomi Rapace, this time wearing rather more clothing than as Lisbeth Salander, with Jared Harris playing Professor Moriarty, Rachel McAdams returning in a cameo as Irene Adler and Stephen Fry as Mycroft (sometimes not wearing as many clothes as he should). It’s a good cast with many other familiar faces popping up in the support roles. Even the landscaping looks good again. In the first Ritchie attempt at Holmes, London was also a “star” with loving attention given to the city as a living, breathing place. This time, although we start in London, Paris also gets a good showing off with a nice castle on top of the Reichenbach Falls.
So how does this film stack up against all the other Holmes offerings? The news is mostly good. Although it’s less obvious as we watch it through, there’s actually some quite clever deductive reasoning going on. Why is it less obvious? Because Ritchie’s camera glosses over some scenes very quickly. In other “detective” films, the camera lingers and allows us, the audience, a chance to spot the clues. Sadly, it’s only when we get a slow-motion reprise of those scenes that we are allowed the chance to see what Holmes saw with his triumphant voice-over explaining the significance of it all. Ah, the slow-motion sequences. . . This is hopelessly overused. I was mildly intrigued the first time we saw predictive movements played out in real time. It was an interesting idea to see how his planning either did or did not work. The final confrontation with Moriarty is also faintly amusing as they both play the same mental game of predicting attack and defence. But the continued use of the technique becomes annoying. If he does make a third (with about $65 million in box-office takings worldwide over the first weekend, the chances of a third look quite strong), I hope he finds some new toy to play with. Anyway, back with the reasoning, Watson and the Swedish gypsy get their own apply-the-Sherlock-method moment and that proves rather effective.
I confess to liking Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. Although they are given some incredibly silly things to do — Holmes pretending to be furniture must rank as one of the silliest of all time — they manage to keep their dignity and, more importantly, they make a good team. This Watson is genuinely a warrior and, although he loses his limp rather rapidly when running for his life, he’s a crack shot and very steady under pressure. This is just the man you would want by your side if the game was afoot. There are moments of real respect and affection between them with Holmes trusting the man on two vital occasions. They also manage to produce humour from the situations in which they are placed. It may not be laugh-out-loud, but it’s entertaining in a gentle way. Yet the real basis for the success of this film is the characterisation of Professor Moriarty. Jared Harris plays him as a very urbane gentleman whose mask only slips a little when Holmes skewers him with an analysis of his handwriting. Later when he and Holmes can enjoy a little quality time together to discuss fishing techniques, we see him as a narcissistic sadist but, at the end, they can find a moment of peace to play chess while the fate of the world is being decided in the ballroom on the other side of the door. There’s a certain solicitousness about the Professor’s care for the injured Holmes when he wraps a cape about his shoulders. They might have been friends in another lifetime.
Noomi Rapace is just about given a fair crack of the whip. Although this is a film about the threat of war and so, in these patriarchal Victorian times, very much the province of men, she’s allowed to be more than merely decorative. She runs, jumps, rides and, for her sins, dances her way through England, France, Germany and Switzerland on her way to finding her missing brother. It’s better than the usual female tokenism you see in blockbusters. As in the Conan Doyle originals, Sherlock Holmes survives the Reichenbach Falls and Colonel Moran lives to fight another day if he can find the empty house in time for the possible third film in the series. I note Conan Doyle did accord Moran the honour of being the second most dangerous man in London. It would be good if Jared Harris could be persuaded to return as well. As a concluding thought, this is an interesting week with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows going up against Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. In my opinion, Sherlock beats Ethan. The other linking factor is that these two films give international recognition to Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist who were launched in the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy. By coincidence, I’m going to see the David Fincher remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo next week.
Consider the following list of names: Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Elliott Gould and numerous others you will recognise on sight — and all directed by Steven Soderbergh. Now here come two separate questions: how do you define retirement? how do you define entertainment?
Some months ago, Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring from filmmaking. Various reasons were suggested, the most recent being that he would like to become a painter. Yet these noises, repeated while he was directing Contagion (2011) (which first appeared at the Venice Film Festival), seem to have meant little or nothing since he’s also mentioned other films he wants to direct and is currently filming Magic Mike.
An entertainment is an activity or event designed to amuse or provide enjoyment. On the face of it, a film with a stellar cast directed by a top name should provide enough fireworks to keep us interested. Yet, it seems retirement is too strong a lure for Soderbergh. All he’s done is give us a documentary drama and, to be honest, I’ve seen better made for television. There have also been a number of epidemic/pandemic films where we’re given the chance to admire the scientist as hero. It’s an unsubtle form of propaganda designed to lull us into a sufficient sense of security so we can sleep well at nights. When a real world threat like SARS comes around the next time, we’re supposed to feel reasonably safe, stronger in the belief there are protocols in place to keep as many alive as possible. Except this film doesn’t seem intended to serve that purpose. Its too flat and factual to have any kind of inspiring or reassuring effect. It’s a mostly dry step-by-step investigation into how the virus gets started with one or two more dramatic bits thrown in.
I hesitate to start with a spoiler but, to save you waiting for the last frame of the film, I’ll tell you it was the bat wot done it. I hate to spoil murder mysteries by crassly giving away the ending but, in this case, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be long past caring. I suppose you know that, if an epidemic is suspected, the World Health Organization and local medical authorities invest a remarkable amount of effort in trying to identify exactly where the outbreak began. Well, this is no exception and, as the body count rises, we follow the attempts of the WHO and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as they try to work out who first passed the disease to whom. This is more than useful information because, if there are several possible vaccines, knowing how the virus came to infect the first human can swing the decision. Except this is really boring. Worse, the fact we do learn that a bat infected a pig shows the futility of the entire tracking exercise. No-one would ever find out how this virus got started. Soderbergh does his best by casting Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon as the couple of interest but she’s mostly in flashback before she dies, and he’s just stoical. As an aside, it’s not at all clear how this couple could ever have met each other let alone married. They are completely mismatched. The plot is also unclear as to why Matt Damon survives when looters are rampaging through his neighbourhood shooting everyone who might have food.
So here goes with a summary which I will do by actor names rather than characters because who everyone is is not very relevant. Gwyneth Paltrow is at ground zero and brings the virus back to the US. She infects her son and both die in short order. Husband Matt Damon proves to have natural immunity. He therefore represents our Everyman who must survive with his daughter until the crisis is over. Laurence Fishburne is still channelling CSI and running the CDC effort to contain the outbreak. Marion Cotillard goes to Hong Kong from the WHO to investigate ground zero. Kate Winslet goes from the CDC to Minneapolis to investigate contacts where Gwyneth landed.
In all this, the only really lively thread is provided by Jude Law who beautifully captures a conspiracy nut with a heart of greed. This is a wonderfully judged performance showing a blogger determined to become a millionaire by promoting a homeopathic cure for the virus. Then, of course, a couple of researchers break the rules and come up with solutions. Strange just how clichéd that’s become. Oh, yes, and Lawrence Fishburne tells his fiancée to get out of Dodge before the National Guard shuts it down. Good to see he has human failings. And not too many millions die.
Don’t get me wrong. This is an impeccably made film but it’s almost completely uninvolving. I really didn’t give a damn about any of the people portrayed in this dry sequence of events. It’s a documentary drama without the drama. It’s a tragedy to see so many talented actors wheeled out in front of the cameras in an episodic narrative sequence that doesn’t require any character development. More or less anyone competent could have done as well. Indeed, it’s probably slightly distracting to keep seeing all these memorable people wander into and out of shots. It would have been better to have a cast of unknowns. So Contagion (2011) is a bit like a real-world disease. You fear its arrival, suffer while you have it, and are profoundly relieved when it goes away.