Skip to main content

And you, Holmes, are letting your emotions get the better of you again!

Young Sherlock Holmes
(1985)

(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.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979) Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.