Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Incoherent Text: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

In the very early 1980s, film critic and academic Robin Wood wrote an article, called “The Incoherent Text,” about the nature of films from the 1970s. In it, he attempted to analyze Hollywood films, from directors like Scorsese and Coppola, which he felt said several things at once. Wood used Scorsese's Taxi Driver as his prime example saying that the film simultaneously condemned and celebrated Travis Bickle, the psychotic central character. He went on to describe how many of the seminal films of the 1970s had this as their dominant storytelling mode. The only problem with Wood's thesis was that it, too, got lost in incoherence, to the point where it was near impossible to follow his argument in any linear fashion. I'm not proposing that Guy Richie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is in any way, shape or form a seminal film; I mean strictly that it is for a large part of its running time an incoherent mess.

Where a film like Taxi Driver has a point of view, divided though it may be, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, for most of its first half, has none. The plot is next to impossible to follow leaving you confused, irritated, and generally bored. Basically, if I've got this straight (and most of this came from the second half of the film, not the first), Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), Sherlock's legendary antagonist, has set in motion a series of events (basically, a series of bombings throughout European capitals that are blamed on various groups) that, in 1891, will cause the outbreak of a world war. Since he has bought up the interests and shares in many munitions and medical supply companies throughout Europe, a world war will make him a very wealthy man. Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) cottons on to this and, with the reluctant assistance of Dr. Watson (Jude Law), is bound and determined to thwart him.

Two years ago, I generally dismissed Guy Richie's first Sherlock Holmes, calling the villain played by Mark Strong weak and the film basically a cacophonous noise. I put the blame on producer Joel Silver. For whatever reason, over the last two years I have warmed somewhat to the film. I still find Strong a terrible villain and the film itself too, well, rambunctious for its own good. However, what did work is that the film didn't cheat us (if we paid attention, we could see all the clues laid out in front of us as the film progressed). In other words, we could come away from the film feeling we'd been mostly treated with respect. Plus, there was a real spark between Rachel McAdam's Irene Adler and Holmes and, of course, between Holmes and Watson.

Director Guy Richie
This new film, however, is a blur of ideas; a ramshackle collection of hard to follow fight/chase scenes; and even though the clues are once again put in front of us, they are presented with such haste that it is neigh impossible to decipher what we are seeing before they are whisked away. One of Richie's strengths as an action director in films like Snatch and RocknRolla is that his quick narrative cutting compresses a lot of information into quick, bite-sized, relatively easy-to-digest chunks. His rhythms are such that he never lets us fall behind what's going on. Here, however, he mostly abandons this strategy to our everlasting regret. There's a long and involved fight between Holmes and a cossack killer – the killer is after a gypsy woman, Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace of the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – that is shot so tightly and with no real rhythm to the cutting that you lose track of not only who is fighting whom, but also why. In the sequence, the cossack seemingly gets killed three or four times and yet he keeps on coming. Was he stabbed? Did he fall five stories? Is he coming back again (which is suggested at the end of the fight since he's not shown to be definitively dead) after he falls in the water?

Part of the incoherence here is in Rapace's performance as Heron. Except to have “a girl” in the film besides Watson's new wife (a bit too tight-lipped, but well played again by Kelly Reilly), and McAdam in an extended cameo, Heron seems to serve no other purpose than to be the sister of the final assassin who may start the war if he succeeds. I think. There are other things that worked well in the first film that don't here. The chemistry between Holmes and Watson is still fine, but their repartee is now very laboured. The fight scenes where Holmes envisions how they will proceed (in slo mo), followed by the fight in regular speed, which were very effective in the first film, here they are as difficult to figure out and follow in slo mo as they are at a regular clip.

Even within the incoherence, there are pleasures to be had even in the incomprehensible first hour. Stephen Fry is very funny as Sherlock's brother, Mycroft (his continually calling him “Sherly” is all you need to know about the troubling relationship the two of them have). The sequence when he wanders around his house buck naked while talking to Reilly as she looks here, there and everywhere, but, well, there, is priceless. And Paul Anderson, as disgraced British colonel, Sebastian Moran, who is a crack shot and Moriarty's partner, is quietly effective.

Rapace, Downey & Law in Forest Sequence
Then we get to the second hour. It's almost as if they had material for the last sixty minutes, but never properly figured out the start. In the latter half, there is a sequence where Holmes and company must sneak across the border between France and Germany. They are detected and they come under siege with rifles and cannons. This is the finest sequence in the film. Using super slo mo coupled with regular speed, Richie brilliantly guides us through the violence and chaos of the explosions and rifle firings as the company tries to run away through the woods. One cataclysmic explosion, rendered in exquisite slo mo, beautifully captures (if that's the right description) not only the effect of the actual explosion, but, even more so, the concussive power of its shock wave. It's unnerving and seems to right the film for its big finale.

Jared Harris
The film ends in Switzerland and, if you know your Holmes, you know where that takes place. As Watson and Heron attempt to find Heron's disguised brother amongst the people at the peace conference, Holmes confronts Moriarty. Throughout the film, Jared Harris (best known as the somewhat weak British partner on Mad Men) has been a credible, conscious-free villain. What is refreshing, and true to the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, is that Moriarty not only is Holmes' equal, he is often his better. In his cold, quiet menacing way (he sounds a little like James Mason did in North by Northwest) you can see how he could be simultaneously charming and terrifying. As he and Holmes debate over a game of chess, Moriarty casually mentions to Holmes that it really doesn't matter if he starts the war then (in 1891) or whether the various governments start it all by themselves a few years later, all Holmes is doing is trying to postpone the inevitable. It's a fascinating conceit. There's just one problem with the whole plot of the the film. The villain-trying-to-start-the-first-world-war-in-the-late-19th-century-for-personal-gain was the plot of the bad 2003 Sean Connery film The Leagueof Extraordinary Gentlemen. Talk about incoherent. That one makes this seem like a masterpiece.

As Robin Wood elucidated in his essay, the incoherent text is about a film that examines characters and incidents in a film in two ways, both pro and con. Perhaps, finally, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows manages that too. Its first half is a mixed up mess; its second half brings some clarity to a project that had none at its start.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information. And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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