Actor, C 1860s - 1870s
If faithfulness to the original was the critics’ desire then they could hardly condemn Jude Law’s Watson, the most accurate portrayal of Holmes’ sidekick ever. Physically he resembled the young, thin adventurer who had served on the Afghanistan frontier and loved women on five continents. What too should we expect from such a character? He’d be useful in a fight and up for one if called, yet no doubt he’d feel a nagging urge to settle down, especially as his profession offered a solid income and a comfortable life. We forget that Watson’s recounts are set sometime in the future, so to speak. He is reminiscing, no doubt from a desk by a warm fire, a dog by his feet, a glass at his hand.
As for Holmes, his domestic squalor was everything Watson repeatedly complained about and utterly logical for a man whose interests ranged from Chinese tattoos to local soils, that is to say, from popular art to geology and all that lay in between. Do people of such frenetic curiosity live in neatness and order? None that I know of. He was a drug addict too. Drug addicts are often messy, partly through lethargy, partly through induced self absorption. To claim Ritchie took excessive licence yet to praise Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s performances is worse than unfair; it demonstrates a failure of understanding.
Greyhound trainers, C 1880s
The film also caught a detail of Victorian London that has been unforgivably forgotten in cinema. It was an age of magnificent engineering, Brunel’s Great Eastern, the Blackfriars Bridge, the Tower Bridge, the Crystal Palace, and those hundreds of mislaid dreams to connect England and France by road, to build intercontinental flying machines, to plan utopian cities. A sequence of tiled frescoes in the passage under the Blackfriars Bridge depicts its construction and the extravagant superstructure required to link two sides of the Thames. In the film the fight scenes in the shipyard and on the bridges pay careful attention to that grand, perverse beauty. The primitive forest of beams and ropes, chains and pulleys speaks of labour as much as vision. One could not exist without the other.
The dictates of fashion and politics make authenticity a dubious quality in films with a historical setting. Today’s Victorian Britain emphasises the crowded filth of the city, which fits in with our gentrified, contemporary aesthetic and the corollary of lost values. To put it another way; cholera is no longer a problem and gas lamps no longer cast their dim glow but with their passing London has lost a vibrancy and atmosphere the most du jour film-maker can’t help but feel nostalgic for, and Sherlock Holmes is an intensely nostalgic film. It’s a film about an era when men were caught up in the idea of Britain’s greatness and an age of certainty. Magic is science, because science is magical. America is weak. Money is no object. Adults have a childlike freedom to explore a city of dark corners and mysterious passages. London is a vast carnival of gypsy fortune tellers, midget scientists, secret societies and shadowy schemers.
Dancer; Horatio Nelson King, C 1860s
The Cartes de Visite in the album are of people from Holmes' world. Click to visit the album