Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) was directed by Guy Ritchie and is second in the Sherlock Holmes series. The screenplay was written by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, adapted from stories and novels by the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Robert Downey Jr. stars as Sherlock Holmes, Jude Law returns as Dr. Watson. Also returning from the first film are: Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler; Kelly Reilly as Watson’s bride, Mary Morstan; Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade; and Geraldine James as Holmes’s housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. New to the cast are: Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, a mysterious Gypsy named Simza; Jared Harris as the notorious Professor Moriarty; and Stephen Fry plays Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother.
This is what the official website said of the movie: “Sherlock Holmes has always been the smartest man in the room…until now. There is a new criminal mastermind at large—Professor James Moriarty—and not only is he Holmes’ intellectual equal, but his capacity for evil, coupled with a complete lack of conscience, may give him an advantage over the renowned detective.
Around the globe, headlines break the news: a scandal takes down an Indian cotton tycoon; a Chinese opium trader dies of an apparent overdose; bombings in Strasbourg and Vienna; the death of an American steel magnate… No one sees the connective thread between these seemingly random events—no one, that is, except the great Sherlock Holmes, who has discerned a deliberate web of death and destruction. At its center sits a singularly sinister spider: Moriarty.
Holmes’ investigation into Moriarty’s plot becomes more dangerous as it leads him and Watson out of London to France, Germany and finally Switzerland. But the cunning Moriarty is always one step ahead, and moving perilously close to completing his ominous plan. If he succeeds, it will not only bring him immense wealth and power but alter the course of history.”
—Yay! Kiss…Purr~ Moment
My favorite scenes in A Game of Shadows are between Holmes, Watson and Mary on the train. The reason I enjoy these scenes so much is because the relationships here are the only ones that are retained properly from the first movie. They reestablish those relationships in new scenes, build on the first movies’ relationships, and advance those relationships to new places. It’s all done with a subtle hand and feels so natural. Holmes and Watson have conflict between them in a way not explored in other versions of Sherlock Holmes. It’s this Holmes’ best face.
—Pro and Cons: A Review
Seems to me, the best place to start with a sequel is the first movie, in this case, Sherlock Holmes (2009). I felt like the real draw to the film was Robert Downey, Jr. and his take on Holmes. Downey’s energy level and exuberance really brings to mind some of the most basic aspects of Sherlock the man. His reinterpretation of Holmes’ mythos retained the character and yet spun it with a modern edge. (For example, his version of the drug use and violin to garner ideas.) Ritchie’s slow motion technique to show Holmes thinking during his fights worked well to bring together the physical and mental sides of the character.
The world exploited the supernatural and arcane aspect of Victorian London while subtly intertwining the period’s industrial details. Modern society has long favored the industrial and the movie banked on it while not going overboard. It felt like this movie’s own take on steam punk if you will and really helped make a story, rather basic in nature, feel more intriguing. (Try arguing with me that a plot about taking over the government from the inside while covering your tracks with clue giving murders and thefts, isn’t basic. You won’t win.) A strong subplot with Dr. Watson and his desire to end his bachelor lifestyle figures prominently in my enjoyment of the movie. Jude Law played the sidekick so well, a spot on interpretation of modernity and tradition.
The one off element to me was the inclusion of Irene Adler as love interest and agent for a shadowy archenemy. I felt like Holmes philosophy, of women being a distraction, made the character stronger and the loss of it homogenized Holmes with other action heroes. A modern move, at least she distracted Holmes from the main plot and gave meat to the middle of the movie.
I took down my initial review of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows because I didn’t feel like it reflected all my views about this version or “face” of Holmes. My draw to the sequel lay in the secondary characters or rather the actors who played them: Noomi Rapace and Stephen Fry. Combined with the reviews I read from fellow bloggers that said they almost liked this movie better than the first, I was sold. During the course of writing my first review I realized, rather reluctantly, that unlike those opinions I’d read that I didn’t like the second movie better than the first. If I’d written a review on the first movie in the manner I plan to for this one it would for the most part be all praise. The sequel though quickly advanced away from the character strengths of Sherlock Holmes and proceeded on an even more modern face.
If I go by my expectations for the sequel then I was seriously disappointed but as I ponder what I ended up enjoying about the movie I find myself raving in enthusiasm. It wouldn’t be such a tug of war if the two weren’t so incongruent. So I want to frame my opinions for the sequel in a rather balanced way to show how torn I feel. To that end, I have 5 ways modernizing Sherlock Holmes improved the franchise and 5 ways modernizing Sherlock Holmes ruined the character.
5 Improvements from Modernizing Sherlock Holmes
#1 – A modern Watson
A surprising aspect of the movie that totally makes the sequel worth watching is the continued development of Watson’s and Holmes’ relationship. Like I said it was my Yay! Kiss…Purr~ moment. Jude Law rocks Watson. The old, simple Watson has so many story reasons to exist and really is a perfect foil to Sherlock but I don’t care! Law’s Watson is more than worthy of existing. Without this version of Watson, Downey’s Sherlock wouldn’t work. He brings such credibility to this version of Holmes. He’s an adult and wants to have an adult life. Yet he’s drawn to Sherlock and his crazy ways. You’re willing to follow Downey’s Holmes anywhere because Law’s Watson is willing to follow. Some of the best moments in the movie were the train after Mary is dumped off and when Holmes died and Watson brought him back. (Actually the train is a really good part of the movie. Period.) Watson has a really simple, credible story arc and it worked well. Sometimes simple really is better. It didn’t feel stereotypical or contrived at all – perhaps a bit of happy writing and a bit of excellent acting coming together.
I read there were rumblings of a homosexual tension between Holmes and Watson. No so I say. Watson was being pulled between growing up and being in love and acting the hero and being a part of history. Holmes realizes that Mary, Watson’s bride, is changing things. He also knows Watson is serious about the changes coming. Like any self-centered male he doesn’t want those changes. Or any changes for that matter. So of course there was tension. Naturally rising character tension. Just because it involves two men doesn’t mean it’s all about sex, just like if it were a male and a female or two females.
#2 – Jared Harris as Moriarty
On the Watson-Law high I can talk about another stellar part of A Game of Shadows. Jared Harris as Professor James Moriarty. He really embodied the character for me, the best version of Moriarty. Period. In this case Ritchie probably was an asset. By allowing Harris more freedom in developing the feel of the villain, one with a more open relationship between Moriarty and Holmes, the character came to life without any support from the actual story. Another benefit to Harris is he soothed the pace of the movie, dulled some of that Downey craziness and gave Downey’s character quite a bit of credibility as an adult and a man. One of the best moments between them is when Moriarty realizes the moment when Holmes made the switch on him for the book. It was all due to Harris and his subtle expressions. (This is also when I felt like Holmes gained credibility due to Harris’ performance.) Sometimes Downey’s version of Holmes is so child-like it’s hard to watch. Harris really fixed that.
I really hope that Moriarty’s not dead and they can bring him back if there is another movie. I’d watch it for that even though it would make little sense and would cause A Game of Shadows to be moot. Okay I’ve got to stop. I could keep talking about this performance forever it was so awesome!
(On a side note: I don’t much talk about pacing because if there is anything an experienced movie maker can do well it’s pacing. It’s a rather basic skill. That said the movie had an odd pacing change I noticed right away. During the setup with Irene Adler and the moments leading up to her death the pace edged out frenetic, like a madhouse of crazies with psychedelic visions and plenty of uppers. When Jared Harris came on the screen the pace subtly changed, we came out of the madhouse and into a slightly more sedate and take-in-able carnival of crazy. From this point on I could sit back and enjoy the movie.)
#3 – Holmes and Moriarty over the Edge
Probably what makes the difference between enjoyable and trash for A Game of Shadows is the movie’s payoff. Any way you look at the plot or the characters, when you realize Holmes is going through the options right then, that there are no other options but possible sacrifice, you are wowed. Really wowed. Your mind goes back immediately to the gadget Mycroft brought to the meeting before the ball and you hope you already know what is going to happen. I think it was a bit of a cop-out to have him come back in this movie but such is the way of modernity. We have to know a sacrifice isn’t really a sacrifice. And the studios want the audience to know that a sequel is possible – no mistaken impressions are desired. Still it doesn’t change the beauty of the interaction between Moriarty and Holmes and you are happy that no matter how stupid Holmes appeared through the entire movie that his one saving grace – his gutsy attitude – saved the day.
As far as modernity goes this scene makes all of Holmes over action-ized character totally reasonable and plausible. The action side of Holmes is now necessary for the character to be able to carry off this part of the plot. Let me make myself clear…I don’t hate the action side of Holmes one bit. I love and embrace this side of him, it’s just it’s odd to have it be the main focus of the character. So when you have a payoff like this for the end of the movie you feel the character clicking into the plot a lot better than, say, during the setup of A Game of Shadows. The first movie was a little more balanced between the mind and actions sides of Holmes. So now we need this kind of scene to make the shift in character (to less mind and more action) seem less contrived for modernity’s sake.
#4 – The Look
A Game of Shadows shares this strength with the first movie. The look of the world transitions nicely from Sherlock Holmes. Guy Ritchie is undeniably a movie maker and knows his techniques. His stylized camera work fits the idea of a modernized Sherlock Holmes. His Holmes-o-vision seemed different to me at first but after watching the technique again in clips I realized it’s only been slightly adjusted from the first movie so much so you almost don’t notice the differences (unless you’re me I guess). Again this technique worked in the sequel to bring together the “thinking” Holmes and the “action” Holmes. This time around Holmes-o-vision is used in such a way to reflect thinking as to almost make obsolete actual mental connections in the mystery. Fascinating that a visual technique can take over for mental processes.
I have to finish by talking about the slow motion “photos” of the bombs going off around Holmes, Watson and the gypsies. Wow! Took my breath away. They were the best shots of the entire movie.
#5 – Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes
Last but not least is Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. Downey has the enviable gift to take what he’s learned about a character and using his skills as an actor create a version of said character that feels like all the elements the audience knows about said character. He did so in Iron Man as Tony Stark and now in Sherlock Holmes as Sherlock Holmes. This ability is nothing to sneer at – it really is what makes Robert Downey, Jr. a genius actor. With the lightened emphasis on plot you need the character to embody what the story is missing. His take on Sherlock Holmes and his ability to make you feel traits not supported in the story is what makes both movies so very popular even with the disconnect between character and story. In A Game of Shadows Downey’s ability is relied on to the nth degree. It makes the movie watchable, lovable and ultimately big blockbuster-able.
Downey is so successful with his simulation of Sherlock Holmes that the writers of the script seemed to feel that actually incorporating Holmes traits would unnecessarily complicate their simple plot. This created five losses that came about through the modernization of Sherlock Holmes.
5 Losses from Modernizing Sherlock Holmes
#1 – Holmes no longer needed to make connections…
In modern movies today with the internet, the advertising and the hype, especially with big budget, highly anticipated films, the writers tend to include the audience’s knowledge as part of the plot. For example, anyone who has an interest in Sherlock Holmes’ character has probably seen in another version or read about the storyline outlined as the basis for this movie (see above). Basically it’s a complex web of connected murders and thefts that only Sherlock Holmes can see the connections between. So instead of introducing the story with a murder, then another and showing that Holmes sees a connection, they setup the plot with Holmes telling Watson he sees a connection between them all and that it could quite possibly be his greatest case ever. I hope you noticed the difference between the two: the first, more classic way had showing, while the modern technique used telling.
By telling the mystery instead of showing it they made the mystery extremely simple. The audience already knows who did it – Moriarty. We already know he’s killed a bunch of men in powerful positions over natural resources. And now it’s clear that Moriarty has taken on terrorist activities. Holmes wants to know why…uh, duh, shouldn’t he already know, isn’t it obvious? The thing is I don’t have a problem with basic storylines. Actually a basic plot framework seems to be part of this Holmes’ mythos. I do have a problem with the connections all having already been made. I have a problem with the only two clues Holmes has to pursue coming from Irene Adler. First of all, if you read above, Moriarty is supposed to be smarter than Holmes. No way would Holmes already have everything figured out. Absolutely no way would Moriarty allow Adler to mess up this many times. He’d have “killed” her after she rejoined him at the end of the first movie. At the core of Moriarty’s character is a desire to leave no connection to himself, however small, however vague. Yet everything that motivates Holmes is directly connected to Moriarty through Adler. And Moriarty would have known this even more so than Holmes.
Modern movie-making loves to create stories that are all about a protagonist taking out a masterful villain. I don’t personally like this kind of mystery, but it doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be used. As a writer, I find the technique lazy and rather boring though. In this case, I know what was done, who did it, and I easily can figure out from those two points why. No Sherlock Holmes needed. The point of the mystery, the reason Holmes is even willing to take it on is because he’s the only man who can solve the case! While I enjoy the action spin on the character, ultimately the action should be leading Holmes to make the connections in the case, unrelated connections. He should be behind Moriarty on the facts and be unable to connect to Moriarty through Adler. This story setup actually makes this protagonist/villain duo look a lot stupider than they really are.
#2 – How Holmes makes the connections was left out…
Telling has it’s places: when a detective makes a break, for example. Many times the research involved to make that break is told to us so we don’t have to watch the boring search through information. The audience gets to come in as the detective and his partner are getting out of their car to go confront a witness, etc and through dialogue we get told why we are there with them. I have no problem with this. With Holmes, the greatest thing about his cases is when he reveals to Watson and the audience how he made his own break as a detective. It’s one of Holmes’ funnest traits because it’s always through some quirky research tactic. It could be totally random facts he read in the newspaper or a disguise he reveals to Watson that he used to garner information. Sure he tells in his reveal of how he went about his research but he does so in a fun and smart way.
The way in which the writers approached this story we don’t get any of that sense of fun in connection to the mystery. By using this telling technique to express what Holmes figured out, without using the how, the audience looses the Holmes aspect of the mystery. He becomes a blowhard know-it-all who makes everything look too easy. It’s these fun research tactics that support Holmes being Holmes, legitimizes him. The writers knew the audience knew about this kind of storyline (a complex web of connected murders and thefts) and they wanted to get to the action so they skipped the best part of a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
#3 – Holmes and Moriarty drop the detail ball…
The writer’s also seemed to assume that the audience would only need the connection between the dark shadowy man in the carriage from Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty in the sequel to connect the storylines. So they dropped the radio part Moriarty stole (with Adler’s distraction) and didn’t even bother to tie that part up. I assume, they assumed people wouldn’t even remember the end of the first movie and that Moriarty would be enough. The thing about Sherlock Holmes is, his intellect is all in the details. He’d never have dropped finding out why Moriarty stole that radio part. We all know about the radio part, it’s easy to reintroduce in a new scene and we can show how Holmes made the connections, fixing some of the story problems. This is another disconnect between Ritchie’s Holmes and the real Sherlock Holmes. Each and every one of these elements are a lost opportunity for the writers to setup the story in a way that will reflect both the protagonist and villain characters.
Another writer misstep to me lay in the duplication of scenes between Sherlock Holmes and A Game of Shadows in regards to Holmes following Adler. In writing this review I went back and reviewed scenes from the first movie. In Sherlock Holmes Adler is heading to a rendezvous with Moriarty and Holmes is following her, at the very end Holmes, dressed like a bum, bumbles into the carriage window and almost gets shot but in doing so gets a glimpse of the master criminal. Adler doesn’t see him though, doesn’t know he followed her. This time around, in A Game of Shadows, we plod through the same scene as we did in the first movie but this time she gets the jump on him. All a ploy so she can deliver a package without leading Holmes to the recipient or another clue. I assume we were to assume that Adler knows Holmes has a propensity for following people and used that knowledge to lead him into a trap. My problem with this assumption is that she should have realized right away that Holmes followed her in the first movie and moved to block him in some way. By having Holmes use a different tactic to get to Adler we could assume that Adler had some “inside” information on Holmes, in other words, Moriarty could have warned her about Holmes and that is why she was able to trap him. Then we avoid any comparisons between the two. Any comparisons in a series are seen as deliberate, such as in the Star Wars series. (It made character sense to duplicate the Cantina scene from the first movie in the second trilogy to show the connection between father and son.)
#4 – Stereotypical-ized Victorian Period…
These aren’t the end to the deviations in this Holmes’ established mythos. In A Game of Shadows the world is overly simplified as compared to Sherlock Holmes. An aspect of the plot from the first movie that informed the world was the supernatural and arcane angle. The great thing about this is it also reflected the time period of Victorian London. They took this out in A Game of Shadows. Including the gypsy was supposed to add a mysticism to the plot that was not successful in my opinion. Too much terrorism and Nazi military for the gypsy element to fight with. Also there were no moments of drug use or the violin. While not supernatural per se they contributed to the feel as if they really were supernatural or arcane. Since they eliminated this feel it was good to take out the drugs/violin as it was the supernatural take that made it acceptable. At the same time, they are a Holmes trait that the writers chose to move away from. (The violin could have been included with the gypsies – Holmes was ever capable of getting along with the lower elements. The drugs could have been used on the ship instead of the trite peering out into the ocean when yearning after Adler.)
In a way this world shift was good because we feel like there was a change going on in the story and we aren’t returning to the old. Also as time advances the world does get more technical and less magical. In another way this change is not so good. Many historical timeline movies try to modernize their story using the industrial/military angle. We saw this in Captain America: The First Avenger – it’s been done a lot and isn’t so creative (and that isn’t the only example). We even have a similar series of scenes, in both movies, where the protagonist breaks into a munitions factory. Personally I enjoyed the supernatural and arcane much more in Sherlock Holmes with only touches of the industrial. Some of the best plot moments had the supernatural feel, even when it’s background was in science. It felt more Holmes-like and created a great contrast, especially with Ritchie and Downey’s over-the-top action version of the character. (Also I felt the industrial edge worked better in Captain America where the plot had an integral connection.) It’s a subjective choice yes but it gave an odd feel to the movie, like it was “dumbed” down or stereotypical-ized.
#5 – Wasted, new secondary characters…
All this aside, the draw to see the sequel, for me, was Noomi Rapace, who I had not gotten to see in A Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, Swedish version and Stephen Fry who I felt would add not only humor but depth through a wonderful relationship with Sherlock Holmes. My hopes in this area were frustrated if not a total disappointment. I expected the secondary characters to rock it! I adore Stephen Fry. ADORE! Fry can act – he has real chops, but much like Cate Blanchett in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull his character was odd and rather shallow. The problem with his Mycroft was they relied too much on the actor and his humor to define the character. Mycroft is such a rich character, any booby could portray him. And in this case they has an excellent actor – wasted!! It’s not that he wasn’t funny either, he was, it’s just funny wasn’t enough to make the character work. If developed properly Stephen Fry could have dominated the movie in a very good way. As it was he lightened a dull, heavy plot with his fun and whimsy.
Just to preface, I haven’t seen Swedish actress Noomi Rapace in anything other than this movie as Simza, the gypsy. So on that note I have to say – gosh she is horrid! I mean can’t act out of a paper bag. She brought zero to the role. At times I was sure she didn’t even speak English, like she was puzzled or not up on what was being said around her. Maybe she rocks. Maybe she is an Oscar worthy actress. Not off this performance. A major problem was Rapace had zero chemistry with Downey. Totally miscast for the part, she was behind the 8-ball before she even got on the set. In her defense she didn’t have much to work with. The character was a total plot development and flopped doing anything but getting Holmes from point A to point B. I even understand why she took it – break into the American market. I would think her failures here would make me want to see Swedish Tattoo less but it actually makes me salivate more. Her feel was just off for this movie but my gut says not so in Tattoo (and I don’t think this because critics or other bloggers have said so either – it was the feel she gave off in Shadows and what I know of the plot for Tattoo). I really need to get my hands on a copy of A Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, Swedish version, just to get the bad taste out of my mouth.
Ideas to Improve on these Losses
To me, as it is, the duplicated ‘Holmes following Adler’ scene says that their relationship is still the same cat and mouse it has always been but this time she had the upper hand. My problem is with Holmes using the same tactic twice. Why in the world would the smartest man in the room allow himself to get tripped up by using the same technique with a woman he knows, knows that he is tracking her? He also knows Moriarty is the villain and is as smart as himself so why risk reusing a technique of which has already been witness to his first use of said technique? If anyone realized, looking back, that Holmes trailed Adler in the first movie, it would be the shadowy man in the carriage. In the second movie Moriarty could have set up a false clue that lead to this kind of trail so that all Holmes could do is trail her. With the clue starting out nowhere near Adler we see why Holmes allowed himself to be tripped up. Moriarty’s motivation, though, would have been to take Holmes out – not to distract him like it was made to seem. (No way did Adler think a couple of thugs would take out this version of Holmes!)
Another idea is to take Irene Adler out of this movie, except for a small preview scene. Basically I am saying no ‘Holmes following Adler’ scene, instead we start the movie with Adler and Moriarty at the tea room. She orders new tea, sips it and then everyone gets up and leaves at Moriarty’s command. She’s carried away. By starting the movie in this way we know that Holmes and Adler’s relationship has changed – she’s in distress and nothing will stop him from rescuing her. Holmes follows the goons like he did but from a different lead, as I’ve already suggested, through one of the “random” deaths he’s started to link to Moriarty. Holmes sees them pass off the package to a woman – Adler he believes because Moriarty has gone to pains to make her appear so. We can have the gypsy Simza deliver the package to the doctor instead of Adler. He flips her around expecting Adler and finds a stranger instead, dressed like Adler would have been. You see a shocked/disappointed expression on Holmes’ face, reminiscent of what we saw in the restaurant when Adler didn’t appear. Moran would be fine to introduce in this opening gambit as the link between the goons and the lead to how Holmes finds the gypsy at the auction. So Holmes looses the gypsy at the auction only to locate her through the sister/letter angle during Watson’s bachelor party. (Not as the place the letter was to be delivered but as the place the letter had already been delivered to, which is why she had the letter, she was the recipient. It never made sense Moriarty gave Adler a letter to deliver but planned on blowing the woman up. If he did it as a trap it still doesn’t make sense as it lead Holmes to Simza who Moriarty was already going to kill.) Since Holmes saved the woman (Simza) from the bomb there is an assassin there to kill her. She delivered the package like that because she was blackmailed – her brother is in danger.
I can even see some dialogue to add to the Adler/Simza comparison. “I was born under a lucky star.” It gives Holmes a pang because he always thought Adler had been too (a little bit of the supernatural here). I can see Holmes tucking away in his breast pocket a tarot card or some “clue” that we realize later lead him to the gypsy camp, so we know he let her escape. “You won’t be rid of me that easily.” Holmes tries to leave Simza out of the end to protect her – doesn’t want another Adler. We can use it to show her motivation better. “I have someone I care about too. I won’t give up on him.” By taking out Adler and utilizing Simza it allows the writers to start fresh with new secondary characters and new techniques for Holmes to garner clues. It makes the audience anticipate the end to see if Holmes will be able to do anything about the Adler situation. It also creates a reason for Holmes to be distracted – his whole point about women is that they distract him from solving cases.
Either way the ‘Holmes following Adler’ scene as it is doesn’t work, and it made Holmes look naive on top of it. It’s a great example of the flaws in A Game of Shadows and how to easily fix those same flaws with a little added Holmes flavor. Done as suggested we could have seen that Moriarty could very well be smarter than Holmes, as well as, used this scene in a connected way to establish the links between the murders in a true version of this mystery.
A Game of Shadows was riddled with the problem of a dumbed down or stereotypical-ized Sherlock Holmes and an underutilized master villain, Professor Moriarty. In ways this is good or bad based on your personal preference but for the purposes of this movie it’s a factor of traditional vs. modern. Ritchie has made it clear he wants a totally modern approach and thus we don’t get to see Holmes’ cleverness so much as his action-ability. That’s why he skirts the traditional mystery aspect of the story and heads straight into the action.
Overall I found Sherlock Holmes to be a movie saturated in modernity to the point I can’t really see it becoming a classic so much as a creative and favorite rendition of the character. It’s sequel did not represent the face of Holmes we were given in the first movie. Only admittedly superb performances by Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law connected the two movies and I have to say the original stands as the better movie of the two because of it’s connected-ness to the more traditional Holmes. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows could have built upon a well setup mythos, instead I was disappointed that I would be slapped in the face by an increasingly lacking-in-Holmes plot.
A sequel has a lot of potential to fail or succeed because fans and movie-goers have certain expectations. Sequels, whether a movie, a book or even a tv season, are frequently disappointing due to their inability to satisfy those expectations. Many times we are hooked by a series due to the main characters and their world. One of the ways a writer can keep a sequel fresh is through the secondary characters.
A great thing about secondaries is the fact a new one can come in for one movie, book or season of a series and be neatly tied up and put away at the end of that segment. With secondaries that persist through the whole series we can explore aspects of relationship in greater detail than a short arcing secondary. Either way a secondary has to slip into the story in such a way that fans and newcomers alike understand the character’s role in the protagonist’s life AND the character’s role in the overall plot. If a secondary character doesn’t add to both protagonist and plot, in some way, they shouldn’t be included in the story. Through the secondary characters we can effectively examine where A Game of Shadows succeeds and fails as a sequel.
#1 – A sequel should stand apart from it’s predecessor. In other words if you haven’t seen the previous movie it shouldn’t matter.
Holmes and Watson continue their struggle from the first movie as Watson transitions from bachelor to married man. In this aspect, A Game of Shadows totally rocked! Some of the funniest bits of the movie were centered around Holmes and Watson and the elephant in the room – Watson’s bride and marriage. Mary Morstan is perhaps the best utilized secondary character due to this conflict. She has some of the funniest scenes in the movie: one where she is thrown from a train by Holmes into a river, and another where she is witness to the fact Mycroft loves his birthday suit. These scenes were essential to standing her apart from the first movie.
Her role worked so well because it stemmed from character conflict, protagonist conflict at that, and while there were expected moments from the relationships there were also unexpected moments. She completed her mission – you understood she is a bone of contention between the two friends but that she and Watson are honestly in love and want to marry. Also her relationship with Holmes and Watson progresses from the first movie – Holmes is at the wedding and she accepts that Watson has a deep bond with Holmes that will mean her husband being gone at times. Here is a returning secondary character and yet we understand Mary’s place in the story through new plot developments, plus she maintains her own character progression. With Holmes we can really see how much he is dreading the change in his relationship with Watson because of his marriage. It gives us a glimpse at Sherlock’s vulnerable side and a hint of seriousness to this very playful version of the character. Mary is a perfect example of the best in a returning secondary.
#2 – A sequel also has to stand apart from any succeeding movie that might follow in the series. This means, for the audience, a sequel shouldn’t feel like a big build up to the next movie.
My examples for this point are rather unusual. Instead of focusing on Colonel Sebastian Moran or Professor Moriarty, I’m going to touch on Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade. Many “build up” stories that get stuck in sequel land leave the secondaries unresolved and lingering even if they play no part in the current action because they are part of the main character’s history. Such is the case for these two secondaries and it’s such a waste. They could have contributed to making the movie feel less like a sequel, like Moran and Moriarty, if only a little more effort was taken.
Mrs. Hudson serves at making my point about what not to do with secondary characters. I get that her appearance was to show how obsessed Holmes was about this case. She didn’t really do that for me though. To me she was really included to keep up appearances that Holmes is who he says he is and Mrs. Hudson as the long-suffering housekeeper is a big part of his mythos. Retired to a stereotypical plot device, she could have been used to urge Holmes into accepting Watson’s marriage and to do a proper bachelor party. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t take her advice – in fact she illustrates that side of him that selfishly does as he pleases. Also instead of Mycroft playing the bachelor party information dump at his entrance Mrs. Hudson could have been utilized for this role in the plot.
Inspector Lestrade added zero to the plot as well and even less to the main character – he in essence got billing for a montage shot of the police. I believe he was included because it was expected for him to be included as another part of Holmes mythos. Or perhaps it was an actor’s contract hiccup, where they had to include him. In either case, if you were going to include what is, in essence, a strong secondary you wouldn’t do so in such a lame way. To my mind I’d have rather him be inexplicably absent. Or better yet he could have been used to emphasize Holmes insanity instead of Watson in the great red web scene and/or he could have served as an introduction to Mycroft. As an introduction you see that Holmes and Mycroft aren’t terribly close and that Mycroft has taken the place of the Inspector as the “police” in the case. In this way you could have made it more clear why Mycroft was part of the story. As the insanity in the red web scene you could have see that Scotland Yard isn’t too keen on Holmes’ theory and yet doesn’t want to dismiss him. Used in conjunction with the introduction it makes his bit appearance useful and strengthens Mycroft’s position.
As secondaries used to define the protagonist in the first movie, Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade get abandoned in the next, emphasizing the movie is indeed a sequel. By using them as if they belong in the movie on their own merit we can better make the movie feel as a part of an ongoing story. Most importantly we could see the side of Sherlock Holmes that only those who best know him can share.
#3 – A sequel should build from it’s predecessor but not in scale so much as in creativity. A returning audience doesn’t want the sequel to copy the first and feel the same but wants to re-experience the characters in a new way. Any newcomers want to get as excited about the characters as the audience who saw the first movie.
Introducing new secondaries keeps a series fresh and has the potential to up the ante story wise in a creative way. No need for extreme effects for effects sake. If utilized well we see a whole new side to the protagonist and are able to explore a side of him we haven’t touched on previously.
To this end we have a mysterious walk on character, a gypsy named Simza. Through a clue she has from her brother, she becomes allied with Holmes and Watson. Her gypsy family also provides much help through the plot of the movie. A gypsy is a great detail to add to this plot, if used properly can soften the hard industrial edge to the story and add a little of the arcane from the original. Alas Simza does nothing of the sort. Much like the returning Adler she is used as a convenient plot device whenever necessary. Her gypsy band provides much of the travel arrangements for Holmes and Watson as well as providing the introduction to a anarchists’ group of which she and her brother previously belonged.
Because Simza is only a convenience she doesn’t interact much with anyone in an emotional or moving way. She doesn’t help us to see Holmes in a different light or even understand his connection to Adler in a contrasting way. Plot wise she had plenty to do with making the story proceed, it’s just she had no real reason to help except some loose affection to a brother we knew nothing about and a supposed threat against her life. Typically Moriarty is not so obvious as to use a known member of an anarchist group and the anarchist group itself – if he did then Scotland Yard would be able to figure out the connection as well. Contrivance is written all over this character. The connections too simple and too obvious. Any unexpected twist would have fleshed out this character better – there were so many possibilities. Really though if Adler had been eliminated off screen – it could have really opened the way for Simza.
We could have explored a secondary who isn’t from Holmes world, hoping to soften his attitude toward her brother. She could dance at flirting with him and challenging his stance on women. As an alternate example to Adler’s effect on him she could have pushed him to un-Sherlock boundaries that a modern man might adventure into. I don’t see her as someone who would continue to another movie and so she could have had a sharply rising character arc that ended on him concluding Adler was the only one for him.
Another walk on secondary is Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s decidedly eccentric older brother. Oh the potentials we weep…okay that’s the extent of my poetry. My point is he’s a great addition to the Holmes’ cast. Two points make him a great addition: A– Mycroft is as smart as Sherlock yes, but he isn’t an action man like his brother so is a great contrast to Sherlock, especially the modern Sherlock that Ritchie and Downey imagined. This is what the book Sherlock said of Mycroft in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter: “…he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right. Again and again I have taken a problem to him, and have received an explanation which has afterwards proved to be the correct one. And yet he was absolutely incapable of working out the practical points…” My point is that such a great foil to all that Sherlock is was wasted in this version of Mycroft. Stephen Fry rocked but he could have really blown the whole story out of the water. We could have lost the gypsy (no real loss in any case as she wasn’t developed or utilized properly,) and instead used Mycroft as a challenge to Sherlock and his views on his relationships and the current case. Being a man of action Sherlock could have used a more sedentary point of view and we could have seen the weaker side of the protagonist in a very humane way.
B– Mycroft works for the British Government and could have been a great plot point in this type of country-effecting story. As I said above he could replace the police aspect and then in a later movie, be used as a government contact or point of advice for Sherlock. In the books, the Bruce-Partington Plans story, Sherlock said about Mycroft, “The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearinghouse, which makes out the balance. All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience.” I think story wise this movie needed a beefing up and Mycroft could have gone a long way to developing this aspect of the movie with very little additions scene wise…a little rewriting of dialogue and voila – a very necessary and meaningful addition to the cast.
Mycroft worked a bit better than the Gypsy Simza and a bit worse than Mary Morstan. He did act as a point of reference to the British Government and got them tickets into the ball to get to Moriarty. He’s convenient sure but he makes sense. And he played a huge part in the humor of the movie. This was great and really made the character work as he had a well-defined role. By building in a personal influence and strengthening his connections to the plot the character would have made the entire movie stronger and more relatable.
#4 – A good story framework is essential to showing off the returning characters and their skills while taking the audience on a totally new journey. Good plot will draw in a returning audience and acts as a vehicle for the characters they already love and enjoy.
Secondary characters, especially ones who reappear in each part of the series, can be some of the most favored for fans. The audience looks forward to the character’s return in succeeding work and worry over their potential demise or loss of relationship.
For example, Irene Adler who returns as Holmes’ love interest and rival. We come into the movie following her, it’s quickly established that she has returned to being Moriarty’s assistant, and that Holmes still cares for her. I don’t hate the way this is done – Holmes’ costume is cute and the fight is somewhat interesting. My problem is her relationship with Holmes is no different than it was at the beginning of the first movie. In essence we have went backwards and without the funny bits from the first. All the aspects that made her shine a light on Holmes were absent in the sequel. Anything the audience felt about her was residuals from the first movie and her role there. The only difference is, in this incarnation, she dies by tea because even though she acts like her relationship with Moriarty is the same it isn’t.
The writers used these residual feelings about Adler and shoved her into a plot device for the sequel. Emotionally her death was used to show Holmes and the audience that Moriarty was serious about killing those Holmes’ cares about. Plot wise the writers used Adler as a link to Moriarty that Holmes could follow without having to explain to the audience that is why he’s following her.
Her emotional role could have worked if she had decided to put off Holmes and stay on Moriarty’s side. My problem with this is that she was tied up in the first movie and headed toward her death. If she thought Moriarty didn’t okay her death then she’s a lot stupider than Holmes believes her. So why go back if you know how your employer feels? You wouldn’t unless you were playing a dangerous game of hunt the spider. If she had decided to choose Holmes and help him take out her boss then her reasoning suddenly makes a lot more sense. Of course there is still how she got back in with Moriarty and how she would protect herself. Now maybe you are saying it was all part of the plan. Well I would agree with you it was. Moriarty didn’t care where Adler’s affections really lay about Holmes. He was willing to kill her or let her live. In fact he banked on her being freed and acting as a distraction (at the end of the first movie). If you think about it Adler’s loyalties didn’t enter into how Moriarty would use her to fulfill his plan. Now of anyone Holmes should have seen through all this, especially with someone he cared about.
As to Adler being a connection to Moriarty, again I say fine if she chose to go over to Holmes side. It doesn’t make sense though if she’s on Moriarty’s side. Holmes skills lay in connecting seemingly unconnected facts. He shouldn’t need Adler at all to lead him to Moriarty or at least a clue of Moriarty. The writers used her this way, in my opinion, due to sheer laziness. They didn’t want to have to explain to the audience why a character the audience doesn’t know is of interest to Holmes. (Actually this is a role filled nicely by other Dr. Watsons as since he is more clueless, Holmes is forced to tell him about his reasoning.)
I’d have loved for Adler to advance in her relationship with Holmes. By presenting the relationship advanced from how the first movie ended we can see that the characters aren’t stagnant. We could have used the surgeon in the beginning to lead Holmes to Adler, who on her own had decided to return to Moriarty to try to take him down from the inside due to her affection for Holmes. By setting up their relationship different from the first movie and without the general rehash of how things stood we separate the first movie from the sequel and make it stand on it’s own. We also allow the movies to flow together so fans will get to experience the same but different relationships with their favorite secondary characters.
Plot wise I think her weak in the sequel. Character wise I think the audience got the point about her importance to Holmes but not with the character revealing fun of the first movie. A fail to my way of thinking. So does the movie stand apart from the first? Yes. In fact, so much so that to see the first movie is to confuse you about the plot for the second. The secondary characters aren’t used as deftly either, and ones from the first return but then must be mopped up clumsily to make room for new ones.
Secondary characters are meant to illustrate comparisons or different facets of our protagonist. Certainly Holmes’ secondary characters do that for him. Mrs. Hudson and the Inspector kick the traditional to the curb, Adler goes the way of all love interests – for all intents and purposes dead to the main character, while Mary, the best friend’s girl is a nuisance to their entire friendship and even their sexuality. The new secondary characters are simply plot devices to move forward Holmes plans or to swallow the crap plot that’s being fed to us through humor. In this we see that Guy Ritchie’s and Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes wears many modern faces, whether good or bad is your decision.
Growing up I remember, no matter where we lived, on Sundays we’d watch Masterpiece Theatre. There were many different characters and shows but one really stuck with me: Sherlock Holmes. This is when I really grew to love the complexity of a well developed character. Much of Holmes was set out by the original author Sir Conan Doyle but Jeremy Brett build it up to the mythos it is today.
What really captured me about the Jeremy Brett version was Sherlock Holmes felt like a real man who could really be out there solving murders and cases. You knew things about Holmes from Brett’s acting alone – his physicality, his emoting, micro-expressions (not the literal ones but the acting ones). Sure he was clever and smug, he had tons of vices, but none of them dominated. All of who he was and is amalgamated into this character, this man. Nowadays they beat you over the head with vices to the point I’m turned off. And if not the vices then that particular character’s pattern. (Like with House or Patrick Jane from The Mentalist.) Brett romanced the vices, made them necessary but not everything. My point is real life isn’t played in absolutes, as much as we wish it were. Brett utilized this fact to blow me away as a girl.
Brett also utilized much of Doyle’s character from the stories, returning the non-canon from where it came. He captured the spirit of the character while presenting his bent. What I like from Doyle’s version is that Holmes was clever: i.e. inventive, original, unique in his thinking. People from Victorian and Edwardian times enjoyed a clever character, someone different from themselves that stood out – in this case for his astute thinking. (As another example of what I mean: Tarzan, written around the same time period, was admired for being different because of how he was raised – by apes.) While there is no way I’d want to be born in the Victorian or Edwardian time period I too enjoy a clever man who is cut from a different cloth so to speak.
To continue my point I have to talk about our modern version, portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. Like I said above Downey retained some aspects of the original Holmes, like Brett. These create a link to our idea of who Sherlock Holmes is traditionally. In other ways, Robert Downey, Jr. and Guy Ritchie have taken Sherlock and modernized him. Sherlock is a detective. He detects things and takes them all the way out to their conclusion. He wants to be proved correct in his assumptions – seeing the link isn’t enough for him. With Ritchie and Downey’s version Holmes is not about being clever or even being different. In our modern times, we have celebrated uniqueness to the point it isn’t what we are so much what we do. The same is the case for this version of Holmes. He’s an action man – he isn’t content with cleverly showing he was right about his connections – he wants to get the villain to get the villain and nothing more.
Other versions of Sherlock Holmes, I’ve seen, were done in the 40′s by Basil Rathbone (First photo pictured with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson) and in the 50′s by Ronald Howard (Second photo pictured with H. Marion Crawford as Dr. Watson). They both took the character and portrayed their own bent. Rathbone’s version were produced during the war and so were to uplift the nation. While Howard played his version as more of the young, less experienced but no less gifted Holmes. I enjoyed both, either way, but like Downey’s version didn’t really represent the man so much as faces of him.
The best modern version of Sherlock Holmes I’ve ever seen was set in present day London and was a BBC One tv series running in America on PBS called Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes and Martin Freeman plays Watson. It’s all about the mystery, the puzzle that he has to put together like a ticking time bomb. This version has people whose skills he calls upon to help him at times and in a funny twist he’s stopped smoking and uses a nicotine patch. He uses modern technology to solve cases and yet manages to hold onto all the little details that make Holmes, Holmes. The real secret is keeping Holmes in character and not making him out to be a super hero so much as a man of action who has a case to solve.
There will always be a place in my heart for Jeremy Brett’s face of Holmes. I have to say when I imagine the character he comes to mind first. If I’m jonessing for a shot of Sherlock then I hit PBS for the best modern face I’ve ever seen yet. As a distant third I can say I enjoyed Downey’s and Ritchie’s take on an action-y face, but unfortunately, I probably won’t recall it with fondness and a sense of delight. Still I believe there is room in the world for all the faces of Sherlock Holmes, he’s that powerful of a character.
If you are a supremely modern person then this face of Sherlock Holmes will rock your world. Surprisingly, Jude Law inspires you to follow Downey in spite of the serious deviations from the original character. A Game of Shadows does a credible job of entertaining it’s audience and as long as you have a reason to go on the journey the details don’t matter much.
Either way, all the characters come together to give us an unrelenting face of modernism with all it’s faults and all it’s strengths. For some, the movie will become part of their DVD collection and be held as the best face of Sherlock Holmes. If you are more like me then perhaps this won’t be your favorite face of Holmes but simply a fun movie version from the twenty-first century. I believe with all it’s faults it really is a movie you have to judge for yourself with your own expectations.
What versions of Sherlock Holmes have you seen and which was your favorite? Did Downey represent Sherlock Holmes or create a totally different character based on Doyle’s protagonist? Is tv’s House or Patrick Jane from The Mentalist a better interpretation or a worse one of Holmes? Does modernity win out over any loyalty to character authenticity? Please comment…