Thursday, December 31, 2009

Culture Shock 12.31.09: Sherlock Holmes is a 21st century Victorian

For a man from Victorian London, Sherlock Holmes is keeping up with the times rather well.

Other long-lived fictional characters like James Bond and Superman now operate decades removed from when they first came on the scene. Bond has gone from the height of the Cold War to the messy world of post-Soviet espionage and international terrorism. Superman long ago traded up from Depression-era thugs to extraterrestrial menaces and mad scientists.

Holmes, on the other hand, rarely leaves the comfort of the late 19th century. There are exceptions, like a TV movie that brought the world's greatest detective to the present day and a Saturday-morning cartoon that transported Holmes to a far future where tweed and deerstalker caps are back in fashion.

Also, the BBC has commissioned a modern-day version of Sherlock Holmes to air next year. This series, titled "Sherlock," is the creation of Mark Gatiss ("The League of Gentlemen") and incoming "Doctor Who" producer Steven Moffat. If nothing else, it has an impressive pedigree.

Still, for the most part, writers who tackle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "consulting detective" realize Holmes works best in a world of gaslights and cobblestone streets, which makes updating him for today's audiences problematic, especially if you don't want to enrage Holmes purists in the process.

The BBC's 2002 update of Holmes' most famous case, "The Hound of the Baskervilles," infused the old formula with "CSI"-style forensics, with mixed results.

Director Guy Ritchie, then, deserves a lot of credit for doing, if not the impossible, then at least the improbable. He has turned Sherlock Holmes into a modern action hero while remaining true to the character.

Doyle's Holmes began as a brilliant detective but knew nothing about the world beyond his cases. Yet over time, Doyle revealed that Holmes was a man of many skills and talents, a world traveler who had learned martial arts and had once been an amateur boxer.

Still, Doyle kept Holmes' skill at fisticuffs largely offstage. Ritchie brings them front and center.

Ritchie's take on Holmes, brought to life with foppish flair by Robert Downey Jr., is dirty and disheveled — all the better to blend into the Victorian underworld. But he remains, first and foremost, a detective. Even though the plot of Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" revolves around a secret society that practices mysticism and the occult, it's Holmes' devotion to science and reason that carries the day.

The 2009 edition surpasses many of its predecessors on one count: It avoids portraying Dr. Watson (Jude Law) as a bumbling idiot, which was the portrayal of Holmes' faithful companion that dominated the Holmes films of the 1940s. Law's Watson is a full partner, even if he is usually an exasperated one.

The dynamic between Downey's Holmes and Law's Watson is a lot like the one between Dr. Gregory House and Dr. James Wilson on the TV series "House." And that's no surprise, given that House and Wilson are basically updates of Holmes and Watson.

Downey's Holmes is not the definitive Sherlock Holmes. The late Jeremy Brett, who portrayed Holmes in the 1980s British TV series, still holds that distinction. But, against all odds, Downey and Ritchie have given us a Holmes worthy of the name — and a Holmes for the 21st century.

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