Young Sherlock Holmes
(SPOILERS) I recalled Young Sherlock Holmes being a more likable Conan Doyle pastiche than it actually is, which is probably largely down to Nicholas Rowe’s personable performance in the title role (endearingly, he recently revisited the part by way of a cameo in Mr Holmes). Unlike the homages of the ‘70s, this attempt, penned by a young up-and-comer called Chris Columbus, has little real interest in the Holmes character from the stories, either in exploring the sleuth’s legendary deductive techniques or in his emotional aloofness. As such, the movie’s consistently fast-and-loose approach to Conan Doyle’s detective culminates with an apologia of sorts at the end credits, in which it claims to be “an affectionate speculation on what might have happened… with respectful admiration and in tribute to the author and his enduring works”. Translation: please don’t be too pissed off with us.
Really, there would be little way to fully carry forward the conceit of a young Sherlock at large – to a general audience’s, rather than devotee’s satisfaction – without furnishing him with his faithful sidekick. So instead of post-Second Afghan War, Holmes meets Watson, a slightly podgy Alan Cox in the vein of Nigel Bruce but a touch more resourceful, at school.
Less redeemable is the determined manner in which Holmes is refashioned as a standard-issue hero with an obligatory romantic interest. We know, of course, that Holmes was pervasively above such emotional and physical entanglements, whatever bed-hopping Downey Jr’s or Steven Moffat’s devotion to “the woman” (the woman being the same woman Moffat always writes) would have you believing otherwise, resulting in no small degree of architectural repointing prior to rearranging the furniture.
Holmes’ adoration for young Sophie Ward is brutally cut short when she snuffs it, so explaining his lifetime of celibate, cerebral rumination; he was once “normal”, you see. Even better, he was deeply wounded by love, the poor prominently proboscised pet (asked who he wants to be when he grows up, he pronounces “I don’t want to be alone”; good grief, young man!) It’s all deeply at variance with the character’s core being, but precisely as envisaged by Columbus, who, misunderstanding that everyone’s nature is not the same, wanted to investigate “why Holmes became so cold and calculating”. Here, he is “ruled by emotion”. This is Young Sherlock Holmes’ “respectful admiration” in full effect. It’s tantamount to Spock habitually shagging Uhura…
The biggest problem, though, since Rowe is decent enough at strutting the pose in spite of the encumbrances foisted on his shoulders, is that no one has thought to give Holmes a devilish good case to get his teeth into. Instead, he’s offered a sub-Indiana Jones tale with nothing in the way of countless clues requiring a keen mind to unravel. This shouldn’t be a surprise, of course, what with Spielberg attached as producer. And with the leading subtitle in some territories: Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear. It’s a franchise-starter!
Well, in an optimistic frame of mind, perhaps. As such, one might charitably suggest Spielberg and Columbus were ahead of their time, throwing out origins stories when it has only now become fashionable. Which isn’t quite true; after all, we had The Godfather Part II and Butch and Sundance: The Early Years in the preceding decade, and those were from respectable, Oscar-friendly originals, quite beside anything and everything else producers would look to in order to make a quick buck. No, the difference here is the action-adventure redressing of the character.
The ‘70s flirtation with Holmes took in a variety of different explorations and reformatting, from the melancholy absurdism of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, to the broader, more Brooksian The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother. Then there was The Seven Per Cent Solution, getting to the root of Holmes’ cocaine addiction through an unhealthy dose of Sigmund Freud. The architect of that one was Nicholas Meyer, who would work a similar marriage of fictional favourite with renowned real-life personage in Time After Time (shortly set for one of a seemingly endless spate of film-to-TV series adaptations). The same renowned real-life person who formed the basis for one of the most satisfying takes on 22 1B’s finest, with Holmes unmasking Jack the Ripper in Murder by Decree. The psychology aspect was also the basis for the man who thinks he’s Holmes in They Might Be Giants. The marriage of Holmes to reality in some form or other, in order to create a new perspective on the character, might have been a better route than Young Sherlock’s rather unrefined adventuring. Alternatively, they might have tried pressing Meyer (then riding high from Star Trek II) into crafting a fine blend of both sleuthing and swashbuckling.
Instead, we have a vaguely-plotted romp in which Holmes pursues an Egyptian cult of Osiris Worshippers, with a slumming-it TV movie Moriarty-type villain (Anthony Higgins) who, wouldn’t you know it… (if you watched to the end of the credits, and why would you, this wasn’t the world of post-Marvel cinema), and fantasy elements courtesy of a blowpipe-administered hallucinogen (did the reveal of the blowpipe in the first shot result from a concern that Holmes aficionados might be up in arms over actual fantasy elements being inserted into a tale bearing his name, as opposed to everything else here they might be up in arms over?)
One of these, of course, the stained glass knight who comes alive, is a very early piece of CGI-character work, and actually still looks rather good thanks to not trying to emulate an actual person. Another, a crazed roast chicken, is a terrifically unsettling piece of PG-horror, it’s just unfortunate that it doesn’t set the tone for the film to come. Despite being a tip-top trip-tastic experience, it’s also is a fairly lucky means of administering death, this drug, since the victims, rather than being restrained or sedated when they start going mental, have a habit of running into the path of things, falling from great heights, or stabbing themselves.
Elsewhere, there’s the trail of signature elements, from “The game is afoot”, to being given a deerstalker. The latter comes courtesy of possibly the most aggravating element in the movie, Nigel Stock’s mentor-inventor Rupert T Waxflatter, a whacky buffoon given to flying about the college forecourt in a pre-Wright Brothers contraption (see also whacky buffoonish inventors in Spielberg-produced fare Back to the Future and Gremlins); Stock is as welcome here as he was in that Prisoner episode. He’s far more impressive in the same year’s BBC adaptation of Pickwick Papers, cast to his strengths, and also made a decent fist of Watson in the corporation’s ‘60s Cushing TV series.
Holmes is expelled from college and gets his own back on the malicious perp (Earl Rhodes, in what looks like a dry run for Lucius Malfoy), but alas not by anything all that dazzling – a chemical experiment turns the rotter’s hair white. Meanwhile, Roger Ashton-Griffiths’ Detective Sergeant Lestrade is a caricatured, self-seeking, thorn-in-the-side ignoramus. So, the standard Hollywood broad strokes.
Less Temple of Doom than Lost City of Gold, this pyramid of fear is closer to a lacklustre later Quatermain knock-off than the Spielbergian peaks to which it aspires. Despite the run of hallucinations (experienced by our sleuthing trio as rites of passage, or pastry-based ordeals), this becomes rather run-of-the-mill once we’re past the setup stage, a sign that Spielberg’s name as producer is already stooping to type only early days into his rein. To be fair, the likes of Goonies, Gremlins and Back to the Future are all distinctive and different (whatever you may think of Chunk); it’s this that signals a contemptible familiarity brewing, from which come Amazing Stories, Harry and the Hendersons, and *batteries not included.
Common to the best of these, and absent from the rest, is directorial vision. Barry Levinson, in this case, has been curiously asked to the blockbuster party and foolishly accepted the invite. A decent writer in his own right, it’s a wonder he didn’t want to tinker with Columbus’ indigestible mangling of Holmes lore (this was the latter’s third produced screenplay, and since the previous two, Gremlins and Goonies, were big hits, it’s understandable that Amblin was continuing to hitch its cart to him).
I don’t doubt Levinson just approached the movie with a “Give it a bash” spirit (similarly to the likes of Ron Howard on Willow), which unfortunately has been the signature move of his career. The best of his early pictures (Diner, Tin Men, Rain Man) are character-led. Even something as flailingly blockbuster-positioned as Sphere still has that focus. This, like the later Toys, finds him subsumed by budgetary extravagance. He has little idea how to make the action exciting, since he isn’t a truly technically-minded director. So there are sacrifices in wooden temples, and sword fights, and flying machines, but the cumulative effect is closer to the larky, undisciplined fare Disney might have produced in the ‘70s, just with a more lustrous, Oscar-nominated, ILM sheen.
Susan Fleetwood makes for a suitably imperious co-villain, and Michael Hordern lends the narration much-needed gravitas (he even makes some of the dialogue quite approachable). Bruce Broughton’s score is trying far too hard for exciting, period, romantic, thrilling, evocative, and failing on all scores. Which is Columbus too, and the movie.
There would be a few further notable, superior versions of Holmes before the decade was out, the animated rodent version Basil the Great Mouse Detective, and inebriated actor Michael Caine comedy version Without a Clue. Young Sherlock has a sufficiently robust kernel, and turning Holmes into an action-adventure romp worked for Downey Jr (even if the detective work was also frequently undercooked), but there it was accompanied by considerable visual acumen and a desire to at least reinterpret the traditional with eyes fully open. Here, Spielberg, or rather Levinson and Columbus, rather throws out the baby with the bath water, and you could ultimately have any young hero interchanging with Rowe’s; Indiana Jones was after all, about to also bear witness to his origins. If only the final movie had been as evocative as the (US) poster.
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