Saturday, 17 December 2011

'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' review:

Since surpassed in the imagination of the British public by a (by all accounts) brilliant BBC TV series, Guy Ritchie's 'Sherlock Holmes' was something of a surprise box office smash back in 2009, despite coming out in the shadow of James Cameron's world-conquering 'Avatar'. The script was alright, Ritchie's direction mercifully restrained and the action marginally above average, so I suspect the chief reason for its success was the appeal of charismatic "women love him, men want to be him" leading man Robert Downey Jr as a scruffy, debauched version of literature's most celebrated detective. His on-screen chemistry with Jude Law's Dr. Watson certainly helped matters and the material was elevated substantially whenever they appeared together, becoming damned funny. The film took over $500 million worldwide and revived Ritchie's flagging career in the process. A sequel was inevitable.

Two years later that sequel has arrived in the form of 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows'. It's basically the same film again with a bigger budget, more action, less restrained direction from Ritchie (whose handling of action is cumbersome and over-reliant on slow-mo) and with Rachel McAdams traded in for Sweden's Noomi Rapace (of 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' fame) as a stock fiery gypsy. Stephen Fry is an amusing if underused addition as Holmes' brother Mycroft, whilst 'Mad Men' actor Jared Harris is terrific as long-term adversary Professor Moriarty - the detective's intellectual equal and evil opposite. But all the superficial changes and cast additions are ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that Downey Jr and Law are together again, playing the characters as barely repressed homosexual lovers.

If in the first film the duo's status as quarreling lovers was arguably just a gag: a riff on the incongruity of two ostensibly straight men having "domestic" arguments. In the sequel this subtext is much more pronounced, being felt in the plot as, for instance, one catalytic event sees Holmes, in drag, preventing a newlywed Watson's honeymoon. McAdams reprises her love interest role at the beginning but, tellingly, she is removed from the equation before the credits.

Rapace is nominally her replacement, yet there is never even the pretense of a romance this time round. Holmes even cuts short a dance with her in favour of his handsomely moustached friend. Holmes, who is vocally opposed to Watson getting married, is even openly pleased when he is forced to delay the consummation of Watson's marriage, announcing that their own "relationship" is not over. "Relationship?" queries Watson. "Partnership", says Holmes as though to correct himself - though we know the best mind of his generation never misspeaks.

This conflicted, unspoken love is deeply embedded in Holmes' character arc and the resolution of the story. He only bothers defeat Moriarty because he refuses to leave Watson alone and it is only through Holmes exiting the picture that Watson might be able to go along with married life. The filmmakers of course will tell you this love is Platonic, but through their sly delivery and knowing glances Law and Downey Jr infuse this otherwise rote action flick with a delicious hint of sexual ambiguity. The implicit romance between these male leads is what gives the film its slightly subversive energy, allows the madcap bits to work and provides the emotional bits some semblance of weight.

'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' is out now and rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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