Rose and I went to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie the other night. We enjoyed it, knowing in advance that the film made Holmes and Watson into action heroes (seeing the preview in a theater a few months back, I immediately christened the film “Sherlock Holmes and the Temple of Doom” – which, really, they should have used, if only they’d heard me).
What I don’t understand, though, is the reasoning of some critics in disliking the film. I understand why they might dislike it…but they appeal to supposed traits of the characters that simply aren’t borne out by Conan Doyle’s stories. For example: Roger Ebert dislikes the squalor of Holmes’ rooms in the film; his Holmes, he says, is always “fastidious.” That may be true of Ebert’s Holmes – but Conan Doyle’s Holmes most certainly was not: he kept his tobacco in the toe of a Persian slipper, his unread correspondence impaled on a knife jabbed into a table, and his patriotism expressed (and this is in the movie) by means of bullet holes in his wall forming the characters “VR” (Victoria Regina). That hardly sounds “fastidious.”
Or the complaint that the film’s plot is (variously) overly complex, tedious, and stolen from Dan Brown (in its mystical hoohah). Well, first, it must be noted that plots were never really the strong point of the original stories: they exist primarily as a framework for Holmes to be Holmes and Watson Watson, and quite often they fail to stand up to even the merest interrogation as to plausibility. “Tedious” is, of course, a judgment call – I found the plot engaging enough, but I was more interested in the characterizations Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law brought to Holmes and Watson. As for Dan Brown: that hack is the thief, of course…and supernatural whatsit is quite prevalent in Victorian popular literature and certainly right up Conan Doyle’s alley (he was, in addition to being a writer, a prominent spiritualist…to the extent that his reputation was somewhat damaged by his enthusiastic advocacy of the fraudulent Cottingly fairy photographs).
But chiefly, critics object to turning Holmes into an action hero. I think it’s really a matter of emphasis. Conan Doyle’s Holmes is hardly an armchair ratiocinator averse to any sort of physical activity: he’s an enthusiastic amateur boxer and fencer, and the brutal physicality of Victorian-era boxing is well conveyed in the movie. And Holmes’s physical strength is also canonical (or Conanical…): to take the clearest illustration, he straightens an iron poker bent by the doctor in “The Speckled Band.” A man of that era would surely not object to fistfights and physical violence in the name of right; and though I can’t call to mind a specific example I am certain there are more than a few of such episodes in the Holmes stories.
One other thing that struck me a bit weird: several critics (notably Ebert and A.O. Scott in the New York Times) seem uneasy with what they perceive as homoerotic undertones in Holmes and Watson’s relationship. First, if that’s what they perceive, their unease is their own problem…but I don’t see it (even though that trope is nearly as old as the Holmes stories are…). Yes, Holmes is jealous of Watson and resents his moving out; yes, the two men clearly are very fond of one another and in fact love one another…but it’s a curious thing that although homosexuality as such was surely not accepted in Victorian times, the notion that two men could be exceedingly fond of one another without an element of sexual longing was more amenable to Victorian sensibilities than it seems to be to ours. We tend to be very wary of strong attraction between men and assume that if such attraction exists, it must be sexual in nature, however “suppressed” that sexual component may be. I don’t see it. I see that the Holmes and Watson in this movie are very dependent upon one another (Holmes upon Watson moreso) but, bluntly, I don’t think either one of them wants to fuck the other one.
But you know, in the movies, two people with strong attraction to one another simply have to fuck – otherwise the attraction must not be real. This is true for male/female relationships as well: the notion that a straight man and straight woman could be very dear friends without a strong sexual attraction is rare, particularly in mainstream movies. Of course, in real life this sort of thing happens all the time. And history is full of men who were inseparable companions: while I have no doubt some of these men were sexually attracted to one another (and some expressed and fulfilled that attraction), I’m equally sure many of them were not, and not because they were repressing their emotions. As Morrissey might have said: there’s more to life than sex, you know…