Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
The sequel is always the challenge. Most sequels, to put not too fine a point to it, suck to a certain extent, and only too often you sneak into the cinema with that feeling of Oh Dear Filmmakers, Please Don’t Ruin This For Me. If the first part was good, the second has to be better, or otherwise the characters will feel watered-down, the plots will lose significance, simply because this new world that has been created has lived on in our minds and imaginations for so long that we know it like our own backyards. I would argue that that makes many fans crave a sense of coming home, and yet awakens the thirst for surprises, for something new, for the characters we love have had many an adventure since we last saw them on the screens in our heads already.
This does not mean that the production value has to explode, though it might have for this one, what with all the weaponry and dirt on the one and all the splendour on the other hand, or that the stories have to become twice as complicated—mistakes that can be made in an effort to go further to meet such expectations, for example in the third part of the Ocean’s # trilogy. We want more of the same, essentially, but with new facets, new stories to tell. All you’ve got to do then is find the perfect supporting cast to go with your leads, write a beautiful script and make a damn good movie that at least most will love just as much, if not more, as the first part (there are always a few who nag and complain). Easy, right?
And, holy handgrenade, they’ve managed. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, is not just a brilliant sequel—it is brilliant, full stop.
It explores the relationship between Holmes and Watson with the same dedication with which it drives the investigation into Moriarty’s sinister plans to a dramatic conclusion, and even more than in the first part if shows that it’s not just Holmes made into an action hero, but that the art of story-telling, of giving brilliant and emotionally demanding and vividly intriguing life to a genius as well as his nemesis and his greatest, beloved friend, Dr John Watson, is not dead.
Along the hunt for Moriarty and the quest to stop him, we see The Relationship (let’s capitalize here, sometimes it’s the only right thing to do) unfold and evolve, which gives a fairly straightforward crime-solving romp magnificent depth, not to forget the insights we are afforded into the two minds at war whenever Moriarty and Holmes meet. Jared Harris plays a terrific and terrifying Professor, a genius like Holmes, yet “infinitely more devious,” as Irene put it, and a narcissist, more so than Holmes—one can argue that Holmes is vain and rather full of himself, of course, but there is an important difference: Holmes has found an audience in other people who he trusts, whereas Moriarty tolerates no other audience but himself, wonderfully illustrated by the fact that he turns to the mirror to sing along to Schubert’s Forelle rather than Holmes, even. He isn’t doing all this to impress the detective, he’s doing it to kill him. Sure, Moriarty has Col. Sebastian Moran, a loyal henchman and assassin, but that’s not a personal relationship by any means. Holmes may be a sociopath, but he’s still much more in tune with his emotions than Moriarty, who merely thrives on greed, lust for power, and anger. He truly does not care, and it appears to be his ultimate advantage: he knows Holmes’s weakness. Holmes goes and asks for Watson’s life to be spared—a request that is denied or, rather, thrown back into his face, along with the news that Irene is dead: a death that Holmes facilitated, and probably knew what he was doing. As long as he can threaten John and Mary, Holmes will always have somewhere else to run first, because he would never sacrifice them even for the whole of Europe standing on the brink of war.
What Moriarty failed to predict, though, was that Sherlock would make it a point to save them all. By caring for his friends, he can do one thing frighteningly easily: he can let go for a sake greater than himself, something that Moriarty never could. The one thing that could outwit the Professor—was sacrifice.
It is a bold decision to end the confrontation in Reichenbach this way rather than have Holmes win the fight and not go over the edge with Moriarty at all, but it is also a beautiful one, because it shows the differences between the two masterminds so clearly and unapologetically. I’m not sure how certain Holmes was that he wasn’t going to die—I don’t think he was sure at all. He must have had the plan, but how much chance of success did that have, rushing down that cliff? Because, with this case, things tend not to go to plan. We all remember the fight scenes from the first movie—Holmes working out an attack, playing it out in slow-motion before carrying it out to the letter. Now, the first one of these, with the thugs escorting Irene, works perfectly. The ones after that? Not so much.
Mme Simza surprises him by throwing a knife at the korsair (though, sadly, to no avail); the escape plan in Heilbronn? He dies. Hurrah, great plan! Thank the Lord for the wedding gift he gave Watson, or that movie would have been over a mite sooner. The fight with Moriarty? Now, that is amazing. I mean, the entire chess sequence and follow-up are fantastic and thrilling—not to mention chilling to the bone—but the stand-off of these two men playing that game, with the odds tipping to either side before Holmes solves the final problem in his own, particular way, is magnificently written, directed, and played.
It’s almost tragic—Moriarty is a terrifying man who can kill anyone he likes, politicians, businessmen, people who work for him… the scene with Irene, in the restaurant, is really creepy. He makes his tea cup ring three times and everyone just ups and leaves? Oh, boy… But the one man he wants to get out of his way the most just won’t go away unless it’s on his own terms. Holmes makes mistakes on this witchhunt all through Central Europe, and he’s had it with being on a hook. Moriarty’s spider web that is spun around and across Europe is shown in just enough, but not too much detail, making it easy enough to follow, yet still displaying the sheer magnitude of such a scheme—simply by showing what Holmes has done with Watson’s old office: the newspaper clippings and reports, the pieces of string serve as a straightforward visualization of years of nefarious plotting, practically reinventing crime. Moriarty wants the armoury and the bandages, to make all the big money that war throughout Europe promises, and he’s gotten very, very close.
The fact that just twenty years later, war did break out in Europe shows how, in retrospect, frighteningly and obviously dangerous the situation had become by then, and that diplomacy would fail because those who did warn their governments of the impending doom—represented by Mycroft here—remained unheard. Again, this is a step further from canon, a good one—it gives Moriarty and what is at stake for Holmes, Watson, Simza, Mycroft, Mary, and Lestrade to save scale and cleverly uses the political situation of the period, which Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t have foreseen at the time, though he probably would have loved the idea.
Now that I have talked so much about how I love Moriarty, I should probably face the music and go on to use the joy of queer media analysis as a disguise for my blatant shipping ways and love for RDJude.
It’s no secret at all that Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law are incredibly close friends, as so many actors who portrayed Holmes and Watson over an extended length of time have been before and after them: Jeremy Brett and David Burke, his first, and Edward Hardwicke, his second Watson respectively were as close as family by all accounts, as were the Russian actors Wassili Liwanow and Witali Solomin; and now also the BBC stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. You need two blokes with natural chemistry for these two roles, to make a relationship like this work on-screen. When two actors are such close friends at the same time as they’re playing ones, it can only do wonders for their performances, and it does. The acting is excellent all around, with lead and supporting cast alike, and what Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr., can do with their faces is so good it’s appalling.
If Sherlock Holmes (2009) was the flagship of homoerotic subtext, then AGoS is nothing but TEXT and co-dependence. The sequence in which Watson ends up on top of of Holmes on the train—does it even need saying? Does the suggestive power of Holmes’ legs up in the air even need words? I think not. Except, perhaps, ‘coronary.’ I say co-dependence simply because, besides the fact that they somehow get close enough to remark on each other’s weight within the first ten minutes, it’s not just Watson who has to put up with Holmes, it’s the detective who has to save the doctor from himself from time to time. It’s probably not too uncommon for the groom to be hung-over on his wedding day, but not every best man has to protect the ring from being gambled away and the husband-to-be from getting beaten to a pulp in a brawl quite like this one.
He gets Watson to the country wedding, wakes him up with considerable difficulty, cleans him up—that sleeve was going to come off anyway—and makes sure he’s ready. An intense look passes between them, and Holmes silently asks his friend if he’s as prepared for this as he’ll ever be—and then he offers his hand. Which Watson takes without hesitation. Which we then see a gorram close-up of as they hold each other’s hand and squeeze tightly, not bothering to let go as Holmes drags a stumbling Watson along towards proper clothes and the gates of marriage. THE CLOSE-UP. We don’t even need to ship it, the camera does it for us. Marriage? Honeymoon in Brighton? Good cover! The sheer ~love~ is knocking me over.
The physical closeness is even more pronounced in this story than in the last, the two are infinitely comfortable with each other, as seen when Holmes rests his head against Watson’s stomach, as they wait for the bride, catching up on a bit of sleep after driving through the wee hours. When Mary arrives at the other end of the aisle, it’s Holmes who gets up in a flash and fusses about with Watson’s clothes, collar, and buttonhole.
Holmes tries to hide his sadness all throughout and after the ceremony, but try as he might, it’s no use to conceal how much he’ll miss him—and vice versa. Watson knows exactly what he’s leaving behind, though perhaps not entirely, he’ll always visit Baker St, but still. That’s precisely why he doesn’t want to answer Holmes’ question at the factory—is he happy? And where’s he happier? When Holmes promises him never to ask for his help again—hell, who do they think they’re kidding? They need each other, and Mary (the lovely Kelly Reilly) is way too savvy not to know that. Ever since John was injured in the explosion and she eased Holmes’ guilt and asked him to solve the case, whatever the cost, we know she approves.
“I know what you care for him as much as I do. This is not your responsibility, it was his choice. He’d say that it was worth the wounds.”
If someone manages to live with Mycroft (Stephen Fry, obviously having fun) for a few days after shit hits the fan on the honeymoon, then decoding Moriarty’s notebook entries as per Holmes’ instructions and leading a seach party into his premises, crippling him financially, they know precisely what it is that her husband loves about that life, and I don’t think she’d deny him to live it at least occasionally—just as long as he always comes back to her, ’cause I’ve got the feeling that if he got himself killed, she’d go after him and kill him a second time. The consulting detective and his doctor need each other so much that the mere thought of separation can only be trumped by something much, much worse—death.
You know how sometimes you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone? Watson sees Holmes die twice in one day, and both occasions prompted me, first, to tear up, despite knowing that it can’t be the end yet, and, second, to mentally yell at Jude Law and later also at Robert Downey, Jr., to “take your face and get out!” Oh, the acting. When John’s heart massage remains ineffective and he panics, going into a frenzy of shouting at Holmes and punching his chest to shock his heart into beating, when Simza has to back him away, there is nothing left in his face yet everything at once as he nearly starts to cry: the terror is raw and insurmountable. His desperation mirrors Holmes’ own when he appears at Watson’s bedside in the hospital after the explosion at Nine Elms, disguised as a lousy doctor. Though it is not their fault, they’d never forgive themselves if they failed to protect each other. And both are completely incapable of just extending a few ~hugs~ when they find that the other is… well… with us. Watson can leave Baker St, but he cannot lose Holmes. He mustn’t. It feels like almost an eternity before Watson remembers the wedding gift and brings Holmes back to life, who comes back and picks up where he left off—bickering.
And this is only the first heartbreak Watson has to endure, but at least there’s ballroom dancing to buy the two of them some time.
“But you can’t see what you’re looking for.”
Nope, Simza, sorry, he has to fance with Watson for that. Who can’t actually dance and just lets Holmes lead him.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“By the way, who taught you to dance?”
Two men, one of them married, walzing, and no-one bats an eye? My, aren’t we open-minded tonight. Well, it is Switzerland.
After that, push literally comes to shove. As Watson steps through the door, having averted the crisis itself, though sadly not René’s death by Moran, who’s obviously survived the bullet he’d caught in Heilbronn, a fatal tableau has been in the making.
It’s all in their eyes, have you noticed? As their gazes lock across the terrace, Holmes gripping Moriarty and nearly tipping backwards, the detective’s eyes betray the sorrow underneath his determination, and it feels as though he apologizes to Watson, before closing his eyes, incapable of saying goodbye or uttering a word of affection. He keeps his eyes closed all the way down the Fall, as if committing Watson to memory for what might be the last time. He should be glad, for if he had been to die, Watson’s face would have been the last thing he’d ever seen. He knows what he’s going to put Watson through for the foreseeable future, and thre is no mistaking the look on his face for anything else than mourning that his dear friend had to see this happen in front of him.
The grief that his best and only full-time friend must be feeling is palpable, and when he shuts his eyes as well for a moment before stepping towards the banister to look down, it’s because he knows. Knows that tempting fate works only once, and that this is the price to pay for his companion’s life on the train, for his life, for Mary’s. It’s down to Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law, friends and brilliant actors, that this feels real, no matter that the audience knows that this isn’t the end. The horror of seeing these two men who truly love each other ripped apart is as real as it could ever be when watching the fall. Or the funeral, which gathers so many people together; people whose lives have been affected by Sherlock Holmes in more or less nasty ways, some attending in an official capacity only, surely, but some in more than that. Some young street arabs from the homeless network are there, some of the criminals Holmes and Watson encountered during their stint in jail after wrecking the docks. Lestrade and Clarkie would never have stayed away, either. John is sitting apart from them all, even from his wife, behind Big Joe, on a lonely bench where only Simza joins him, both times the first to comfort him, and grieving for her brother herself.
“He played the game for the game’s sake.”
Not even having a body to bury, there is naught but emptiness, paralyzing John in his mourning; days later still, when he types up what he thinks is his last adventure with Holmes and Mary comes to talk to him and drop off the mail, the wound has scarcely begun to heal. This is a loss he will carry with him forever…
The dawning realization on his face as he unpacks the breathing apparatus, his excitement as he chases Mary to ask her about the delivery boy—it’s the most beautiful thing. Unlike in the usual procedure, they don’t make him wait for three years before finding out that Holmes is alive; and the fact that the man himself has been living in the household in urban camouflage shows only too clearly that Mary’s right: he would demand to come along to Brighton, because he cannot be parted from his Watson, unless he has to, which is why this certainly isn’t THE END.
Guy Ritchie’s Holmes is gritty, dirty, and fast. It’s action-packed and smart, driven and beautiful. It explores The Relationship and intensifies it, managing to have loads of fun with the subtext, mastering the serious emotional moments just as well as the absurdity of Holmes’ disguise and the play with sexual innuendo and tension that follows.
It makes Moriarty a wonderfully horrible villain and gives our two geniuses the chance to shine, each in their own different ways, and yet so similar, if there weren’t the small but insurmountable obstacle—Holmes has far more to live for than himself.
Should there be a third part waiting for us, out there, on Earth, at all, I’d be delighted to see it—and word from Warner is that there will be. Huzzah!
All images taken from the official website, courtesy of Warner Bros.