Aside from a persistent temptation to refer to this as “Sherlock Holmes: Game of Thrones“, which rolls off the tongue for a combination of reasons involving HBO and rhyme, this is an untidy but entertaining calvacade of nonsense continuing Guy Ritchie’s determination to change Sherlock Holmes from the stentorian deerstalker-sporting droll and heavy-lidded clue-fondler of vague popular consciousness into Steampunk Action Hero. Being as I am a fan of the very solid, unshowy Granada-produced Sherlock Holmes adaptations (or some of them, as The Three Garridebs is just bloody weird) and a firm holder of the belief that Jeremy Brett was the One True Holmes, I ought to be strongly against Ritchie’s meddling. However, as a fan of Guy Ritchie’s noisy, adolescent flailing films and apparently endless barrage of homoerotic subtext (which frequently breaks free of the bounds of “sub” to become merely loud, gun-wielding text), I have an iron in the fire.
Game of Shadows has not hit the same chord of novel delight in me that its predecessor did, but I am pleased to say that it did not disappoint, either – and I went in expecting to be disappointed.
In fact, I went in convinced that it was going to be irritating bilge, and largely in a foul mood, and came out much cheered and gigglingly praising Ritchie to the cloud-strewn skies, so I would say it went rather well.
Although the film begins with an action sequence it, for me, took a while to take off. I found myself bored with Irene Adler by the end of the previous film, and uninterested in her supposed role as the Holmesian love interest (lest we forget, in the Granada adaptation she was not his femme fatale but instead merely a woman of a jaded past who was as smart as he was, which has in more recent adaptation become some sort of infuriating mash-up of Mata Hari and Lara Croft); happily Guy Ritchie took care of that, and in doing so raised the stakes.
I find Guy Ritchie’s Moriarty a lot less annoying than Gatiss/Moffat’s changeable manic pixie lunatic, and his demonstration of his mastery over Holmes is – despite involving an explosion and an assassination and an honest-to-God opera (Game of Shadows is if nothing else a lavish affair) – more subtle.
Before I raise a few matters about new cast members I should point out that this is a very action-heavy film. There is almost always something happening, and as a result of this relentless forward motion it seems almost as if the film itself is rather short, plunging away to its conclusion without really pausing for breath. There are some magnificent set pieces, some harrowing scenes – the level and intensity of violence has been raised considerably, along with the stakes – and I wish to make prolonged and passionate love to the wardrobe department over the course of several days.
And of course, the slash fans are not only well catered-to but almost overly pandered to, which guarantees the film’s success in many circles. As a friend of mine (the delightful Bostonian cabaret artiste Amy Macabre) put it, “If this film were any more gay it would just be two dicks kissing each other.” Mainstreamer reviews have been quick to comment on it, largely in tones of great delight, for it’s hard to feel particularly resentful of the barely subtextual sexualisation of the Holmes/Watson friendship in the face of such glorious silliness.
On to the cast. In the previous film I felt that Rachel McAdams was the weak link in an otherwise shining cast; in Game of Shadows she returns, briefly, and is summarily dealt with. Her replacement is Noomi Rapace, who hurls knives and kicks Cossacks and shoots rifles in a refreshing change from the elegant poise and coyly sexualised tedium that has become de riguer for Irene Adlers; Sim, her character, is not presented as a potential love interest for Holmes but rather as a capable and intelligent woman trying to rescue a loved one and very much in command of her own destiny wherever possible.
It is a shame, then, that this film also fairly oozes with (period-appropriate) racial stereotypes and cringe-inducing racist notions. It would have been entirely easy to swap Holmes’s horrendous yellowface performance for something less directly ripped from the annals of 1891, considering how much else has been borrowed from the future (as a former student of sound technology I was more than a little peeved by some details of reproduction, although it is a small drop in a large ocean of deliberate and accidental anachronism); most gallingly, however, there is the depiction of the “gypsies”.
Holmes and Watson’s attitudes could easily be written off as attitudes representative of the time, were they not then immediately supported by the text as realistic. This is sad, because alongside the painful moments of stereotypy there is also an overall intent to push the “gypsies” (a word I am using because it is used in the film; it is generally speaking a racial slur on a par with “negroes”) as being brave, resourceful, loyal, skillful, and intelligent without falling into the irksome “noble savage” trap. It is all the more twitch-making because it’s not the first time Ritchie’s danced around trying to say something admirable about a travelling people and fucked it up and said something unpleasant in the process instead (please see Snatch).
Returning to the cast; I’ve mentioned the formiddable Moriarty and a burgeoning admiration for Noomi Rapace, and I think due mention must also go to Stephen Fry, not least for his exceptional ability to play himself in every film role he receives. Although this is very clearly Mycroft-by-Fry, it is Mycroft-by-Fry in the same way that his brother is Sherlock-by-Downey, and thus their hammed sketches complement each other. Tethering Fry and Downey, Law injects as much level-headedness into both the plot and the performances as he can be expected to, and turns a very touching final scene or two.
So, Game of Shadows is silly, exotic, entertaining, and quite, quite gorgeous to look at, and even if it has only a passing relevance to any Holmesian plot (rather like its predecessor) it retains an essence of the original; its significant flaws are almost certainly an overreliance on Victorian racial attitudes which stand out rather starkly.