Guy Ritchie is essentially a stylist. The jump-cutting; the repeating sequences backward and forward in narrative time; the light, somewhat sardonic humour (you can only applaud the return to the screen of a very English repartee); the set pieces of violence; the styling; the homo-erotics of male bonding; these are the defining characteristics of his better work (Swept Away the rather too obvious and too terrible exception). And they are superb entertainments. He seems to understand the pleasure audiences can vicariously share in when a bunch of laddish mates (and a couple of stroppy women) having a bloody good time whilst putting it down on film and with a generous budget. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels introduced the essential parameters of the style and established what were to become the expectations fairly to be had of this director. It’s a surprisingly narrow stylistic scheme but it is one that he and his audiences have relished since that first feature.
To the extent that this is essentially an auteur approach to film-making, Ritchie’s films become somewhat risky affairs. Stick too close to the formula and the rehearsal of key stylistic features or the reiteration of particular concerns and it renders the resulting work repetitive, samey and presumably less of an exhilarating visual experience. Stretch too far and either the audience can feel cheated of the qualities of his work that make his films so attractive and watchable or he can simply be seen to over-reach – the result being cinema that is so bad it becomes an excruciating exercise in viewer forbearance.
Building on a reputation as a man’s man, Ritchie’s films are, while not testosterone affairs of the sort of mindless banality normally reserved for the male equivalent of the “chick-flick”, unassailably male. They are films for men, about men in which men in the audience can play out a range of phantasies of (non-sexual) virility, violence, wit and style – features akin to a metrosexual adventure story where a fair number of the protagonists are just good old-fashioned thugs. In this respect, it’s not too much of a surprise that Ritchie has provided the break-through opportunities for a number of actors who have gone on to Hollywood success (Brian Blessed impersonator Gerard Butler (just joking but did you see 300?); ex-diver Jason Statham; ex-footballer Vinnie Jones (though “success” is a relative term here)) and has revitalised a sense of the eccentric Englishman.
How to refresh the brand? Take on a set period piece in the form of the venerable Shelock Holmes. It’s a remarkably smooth transition that seems only to beg the question of why he didn’t do Victorian England earlier. All the cinematographic hallmarks are present and accentuated – the cinematography is the richer for the work of Philippe Rousselot (Diva, A River Runs Through It) and the editing by James Herbert is crisp and enhances the appropriately dense mise en scene.
The shift in period renders Ritchie less able to draw on a contemporary Zeitgeist – thereby depriving the film of some of the arch social observation of previous work. Of course any film (even period film) is a reflection of the time in which it is made, but the plotting of Ritchie’s contemporary films are able to be more complex and surprising that the almost-formulaic approach adopted here. To an extent that might be said to honour the Conan-Doyle tradition of narrative exegesis but the plot here seems unduly hemmed-in by the manner in which the dark arts material is (over) utilised. Okay, that’s prescient in terms of some Conan-Doyle plots (the devilish hounds, for example) and reflects a grossly simplified echo of the older Conan-Doyle’s interest in spiritualism (the most rewarding investigation of which is doubtless Julian Barnes’ novel Arthur & George). The plot, then, is just too thin to sustain the film for the whole time. Though usefully interspersed with some close moments of physical violence, some clear theatrical set-pieces (in the shipyard, on the docks, on Tower Bridge) and some expertly controlled two-handers, many of the major incidents of simply driving the principal plot along seem dull or pedestrian by comparison.
This might be due to the fact that this is the first of his films for which he has no writing credit. There are a couple of moments of plot inconsistency that stretch the interior logic of the narrative (a very, very swift run through the sewers from the Houses of Parliament all the way along the embankment to Tower Bridge; Holmes deducing the use of a particular immolation agent at an event at which he was not present).
Also a short-coming, the expanded scale of the film and the focus on the principal protagonists shortens his opportunity to present the sort of ensemble of characters that was such a strength of the earlier work. On one hand this has the effect of severely limiting the dimensions of the villainous or peripheral characters (a couple of the constabulary aside: a sweet turn by Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade and William Houston makes Const. Clark an interesting character, not just a part in the agency of the plot). But Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) it too much the penny villain (not a million miles from his work in Young Victoria) and his various side-kicks in the peerage or gentry are similarly thinly characterised (Lord Coward is a minion of Blackwood – it’s hardly surprising). Typically for Ritchie, his sympathies lie with the henchmen of the powerful, here Dredger (Robert Maillet) a massive French thug whose tenacity and taciturn wit is akin to “Big Chris” in Victorian workman’s clothes. There’s also a beautifully drawn characterisation and portrayal of a working woman’s strength and intelligence in Mary Marston (Kelly Reilly), Dr Watson’s intended.
On the other hand, that reduced ensemble also signals that this film is very much a buddy movie – a film that is so closely concerned with the relationship between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and Dr John Watson (Jude Law) that many of the plot devices seem just that, merely devices that provide a scaffolding from which to make another consideration of the friendship. Indeed, it with respect to the protagonists’ friendship that the film’s strengths are manifestly displayed. Their camaraderie is riddled with innuendo (it’s a Guy Ritchie film, afterall) but whereas in the past this has either been double entendre or explicit dissection of male sexuality, the period setting renders any inferred homo-eroticism significantly more ambiguous or perhaps more ambivalent. These are men who know each other intimately (they have equivalent considerable insight into the talents and failings of each other), this is apparent but it simply doesn’t follow that they have been intimate – which is a strength of the way in which the characters are drawn.
Downey has played up to this in a notable interview on The Late Show, which was doubtless designed (successfully) to playfully bamboozle the asinine David Letterman. Downey’s charming dissembler recognised a key feature of the film: that this is a film where the dynamics of the relationship both sustain and constrain each man and where the risk of separation of these two men is something that they both view with considerable anxiety – much as they express it obliquely or refuse to address it at all. The suggestion of some sort of undertone of or suppressed sexual tension adds a frisson to the banter between them but, in the end, sexual or platonic, this, like the best buddy movies, is a film about the threat of change and separation.
Hence, it’s no real surprise that the best moments of scripting are in the scenes between Downey and Law. The pace of the exchanges, the deployment of some very nice vocabulary (not Deadwood, you understand, but it’s a tremendous surprise to be treated like you have a literary ear – especially in a multiplex film such as this) and the terrific chemistry between the two actors are simply a pleasure to watch – they’re both on top of their game here and understand the value of not dumbing-down for an unashamedly popularist romp.
Equally rewarding are the production and, especially, the costume design. Jenny Beavan (who impressed in period films such as Room with a View, Howard’s End, Sense and Sensibility and Gosford Park) has relished the Anglomania mode of costuming for the principal characters: Holmes’ dishevelled Bohemianism; Watson’s urbane tweediness; Irene Adler’s (Rachel McAdams) Tissot-esque bourgeoiserie (with an arresting combination of navy and fuscia in a couple of frocks). The only poor note (but it’s terrible) is Lord Blackwood – the fascist haircut (Oswald Mosley, not quite as ludicrous a reference as Adolf Hitler but still a bit dense), the leather overcoat are quite out of sorts with the rest of the film (though the Lord’s snaggle-tooth is a clever piece of detail that can easily be fixated on).
And as Lock, Stock… spawned its sequel, the die is cast for a return to this fertile Victorian field with the revelation that a mysterious shadowy figure is no less than Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Certainly this was a clear signal of a franchise but it was allowed to develop from early on in the movie (unlike, say, District 9, where the alien’s assurance “we’ll be back in two years” and the bureaucrats declaration “we’ll move them to District 10” was ridiculously ham-fisted). And even if it as poor a development as Snatch was to the original, it’ll still attract a wide audience – and should still charm and interest them as this outing certainly does. One thing that might improve on the first Holmes might be if he takes a greater hand in the script and brings more of his particular styling to the script.