Wednesday, 21 December 2011

'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' reviewed

SPOILER WARNING: This post discusses the plot of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

I was wary of what kind of film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows was going to be. I have been a fan of Guy Ritchie's work since Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and he had proven that he could make a compelling Holmes film with the first Sherlock Holmes. However, sequels often prove to be terrible ideas with an even worse realisation.

I have heard many argue that Ritchie's Holmes isn't 'the real' Holmes, for various reasons: too much fighting, too few truly genius deductions, too little time sitting around in comfy chairs in 221B expositing on the plot, that Downey was too American and that, in a nutshell, the first film was focusing on all the wrong things to make it a 'real' Holmes film – although enjoyable, it would not have the same standing in the eyes of traditional Holmes fans as a Brett or a Rathbone. What's often forgotten when this kind of argument is presented is the fact that Sherlock Holmes adaptations have been ever-changing and not entirely faithful to the canon since their inception, and it is perhaps this discrepancy with the canonical stories that allows the new Holmes adaptations to play around with and explore the original stories more.

Just like the first Sherlock Holmes done by Ritchie, A Game of Shadows is not based on any of Conan Doyle's canonical stories, but it has many references to them. The main villain this time is Professor James Moriarty, the most famous criminal to all admirers of Holmes. The film does Moriarty justice and his character is expanded further from what he is presented to be in The Final Problem and The Valley of Fear: with a striking scene in which the power of Moriarty's influence empties one of Victorian London's most busy and famous restaurants, the audience is shown the staggering amount of power that Moriarty holds over London.

Jared Harris as Moriarty is perhaps one of the best portrayals of the professor to date: he isn't afraid to step away from the hunched, wizened professor of Paget's illustrations and Conan Doyle's descriptions. His Moriarty is both reserved and theatrical, controlled and chaotic, charming and terrifying, depending on which role he plays: that of the professor or of the master criminal. It's all about the subtleties: when displeased, he doesn't lash out, but it is clear how irate he is when his pencil slips on the paper and his wrist jerks violently. Harris' Moriarty isn't susceptible to cackling or moustache-twirling like a one-dimensional storybook villain: a simple smile at the right moment accomplishes more than the loudest laugh, and makes the viewer more afraid, and also perhaps awed, of his character. Moriarty's duality of a genius university professor and a criminal mastermind is well incorporated into the narrative, both visually and though the way he speaks, when he uses astronomy metaphors and exploits his European lecture tour as a front for consorting with anarchists and planting bombs in ambassadors' chambers. With his ambitions in the film for bringing about a world war and then supplying both the sides with weapons, this Moriarty is an interesting balance of chaos and control, and the two sides are always fighting for dominance, one never quite triumphing over the other.

Something which A Game of Shadows has improved on since the first film is its female characters – in Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler is defeated and subdued by Holmes, left sobbing and handcuffed on top of Tower Bridge as her unrequited love interest swans away triumphantly. In A Game of Shadows, Mary Morstan takes complete control of the situation when she and Watson are attacked on their honeymoon – she wields a gun with confidence and dispatches with the threat without a moment's hesitation. Madam Simza Heron, played by Noomi Rapace, is more than capable of defending her own corner with limited help from the male protagonists – she is shown with a weapon from the start, and she uses it with skill and poise. Unlike Adler in the first film, Madam Simza is never in the position of a helpless damsel in distress who is unable to fight her own battles; and, refreshingly, she shows no romantic interest in either Holmes or Watson. When placed in a mostly-male environment of a Gypsy camp, she is still independent and even waited on by the men.

Although it doesn't offer passionate sloppy make-outs (rooftop and/or rain optional) between the leading man and lady which serve to satisfy the desires of those projecting themselves into the leading man's character but are otherwise completely unrelated and unnecessary to the plot (looking at you, Iron Man 2, Thor, et cetera, ad nauseam), the film does have a coherent romantic, and most of all, realistic heterosexual plot. Firstly it's the marriage of Watson and Mary Morstan, which is portrayed with deserved respect and realism, and secondly it's Holmes's devotion to Irene Adler, which is romantic and platonic more than sexual. They are seen kissing, but only when it's used as a distraction to pilfer something from each other's person, rather than a sign of affection. Of course, the female characters in A Game of Shadows still leave much to be desired – Adler's primary weapon is still her sensuality rather than her intellect, and both she and Morstan are done away with so as to make way for Holmes and Watson's shenanigans, but the portrayal of women has still improved since Sherlock Holmes.

A further thing that A Game of Shadows does right is place the plot in a coherent and even mostly accurate historical setting – the film is set in 1891, and it is immensely pleasing to me as a Victorianist to see the start of construction of the underground railway in Baker Street. This makes sense because the London Underground was opened in 1893, so it was a nice touch from the producers to add that in. There is also the way the plot leans on the evolution of weaponry and the use of dynamite and explosives, which at the same time shows Victorian progress and the fear of what this progress might cause, and is furthermore, perhaps, a nod towards the Fenian dynamite campaigns between 1881 and 1885. There is some creative freedom employed when the plot deals with facial reconstructive surgery (this kind of surgery wasn't perfected or even performed until well into the second half of the twentieth century): however, it ties in well with the overall theme of the film of disguise and deceit, and the Victorian obsession with changing one's face to look like someone else. The huge size and power of the British Empire is felt more keenly in the way that the film shows characters such as Chinese opium smokers, Cossacks, military maps and the character of Mycroft Holmes working for 'Her Majesty's Secret Service' (which was unfortunately not officially founded until 1903, but Mycroft is more likely a homage to William Melville) and meeting other diplomats in high-profile events which decide the future of Europe.

Holmes and Watson are still the two characters who carry the film, as they should be, and Downey and Law do a very good job. There is a satisfying balance of banter, arguments, respect, and co-dependency to make their relationship believable and enjoyable, and it is no longer felt, like in Sherlock Holmes, that Holmes is the more clingy, desperate one: the affection is obvious on both sides, although expressed in different ways. There are some scenes which appear gratuitous and done as fanservice – the brief tussle on the train and the dance in Switzerland. On the other hand, there are several moments when their affection for each other is subtly, yet magnificently portrayed with just one simple look or gesture.

My personal favourite thing about A Game of Shadows was the inclusion of Colonel Sebastian Moran. Many directors either forget about or consciously axe Moran from the plot when including Moriarty, even though Holmes describes Moran as the 'bosom friend' of Moriarty in The Empty House. In A Game of Shadows, Moran is included alongside Moriarty from the start, and even though he is described by Holmes as someone akin to a gun for hire, it is shown on more than one occasion that Moran's interest in Moriarty isn't simply protecting a colleague and business investment, but that there is also an emotional connection, and perhaps a friendship, between the two men.

Although it has its faults and questionable moments, A Game of Shadows is more than a worthy sequel to Sherlock Holmes. It doesn't try to be something it's not, and it offers a satisfying balance of action, deduction, villainy, canonical references, and banter. Both the mannequin in the window of the 221B sitting room and the ending of the film promise a sequel. I, for one, welcome it.

Friday, 16 December 2011

What to get a Victorianist for the holidays

Preparing for the contents of this post led me to considerably expanding the contents of my Amazon wishlist, and, as always, sighing dejectedly over the fact that I cannot afford nearly as many books as I would like to own. This feeling was considerably dispelled by the fact that only two days ago, I happened upon Phyllis Grosskurth's biography of Havelock Ellis in one of my local charity shops for just £3. So, that was my little Christmas present to myself, since I've increasingly been researching Ellis's life and work lately.

Then, what does one get to a Victorian scholar, or a person who is interested in the Victorian period? There are so many books out there about that part of history, it can sometimes prove difficult to weed out the good from the mediocre. So here's a quick, short list of books that I'd personally love to find under my Christmas tree.

Richard Aldous, The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone Vs. Disraeli
Gripping, intelligent, relevant and well-researched, this explores two of the most prominent Victorian prime ministers and their political relationship.

E.W. Hornung,Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman
Directly inspired by Sherlock Holmes, the Raffles books are amusing, exciting and charming, and offer a story about young men who resort to stealing and criminality when they find themselves 'hard up', resulting in much shenanigans, banter and page-turning glee.

Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City
Both scholarly informative and entertaining, this book brings Victorian cities to life with unprecedented vividness.

Gavin Stamp, Lost Victorian Britain: How the Twentieth Century Destroyed the Nineteenth's Architectural Masterpieces
Visually well-equipped, this explores some of Britain's Victorian architecture and the reasons why these buildings have fallen into disrepair. Somewhat disheartening, but nonetheless a warning-sign book on what might continue to happen if we do not take better care of British heritage.

Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life
Superbly researched and sourced, this most recent and heavily publicised Dickens biography is the adequate thing to get before the next year's bicentenary of Dickens's birth.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Great Sherlock Holmes Debate

On November 10 at 8 pm GMT, MX Publishing are organising The Great Sherlock Holmes Debate, in which three teams will be pitted against each other in an online debate, where it will be discussed which of the many types of Sherlockian adaptations has contributed the most to upholding the legacy and continuing the popularity of the great detective well into the twenty-first century.

There will be three teams, representing BBC's Sherlock, Warner Bros.' Sherlock Holmes films done by Guy Ritchie, and the 'traditionalist' team. Some of the participants in the debate include The Baker Street Babes, Sherlockology, Nick Briggs, Roger Llewellwyn, and Alistair Duncan. You can check out the full lists of team participants here.

I am very happy and incredibly honoured to be involved as a part of the Traditionalist team, captained by Nick Briggs. Here is an introductory slideshow of the team members. I hope I will be able to offer adequate contribution to the debate and make the experience interesting, fun and thought-provoking for all involved, and I hope my knowledge (my MA dissertation, Sherlock Holmes and the Celluloid Wonder: Re-Imagining the Detective in the Twenty-First Century, dealt with this topic) will make up for my anonymity.

Remember to 'like' The Great Sherlock Holmes Debate on Facebook! The Debate is supporting two very important causes: Save Undershaw, for the preservation of Conan Doyle's home, and BAFTA for Jeremy Brett.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Victorian homosexuality series: John Addington Symonds

Sexuality in nineteenth-century British society was heavily policed and strictly regulated. People's private lives were regulated by means of the public sphere, through legislation as well as discourse in newspapers, sermons, pamphlets and other ways of public address.

For a society steeped in moral panic about a vice supposedly so abominable it cannot be uttered, 'the love that dare not speak its name', as Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas was to describe it in his poem Two Loves, the Victorians had a knack at finding ways to keep discussing it.

For example, in a medical text from 1873, 'unnatural offences' are dealt with, among them sodomy. It is interesting to note that although it was written by a medical doctor, The Principals and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence does not go any further to explain what sodomy actually is, other than the fact that it was an 'unnatural connection of a man with mankind'. (The full volume can be read at the Internet Archive here.) This kind of repressive, restrictive discourse birthed late nineteenth-century sexologists and homosexual apologists, who sought to prove that homosexuality and acts related to it (such as sodomy), was not 'unnatural' or an 'offence', but rather a valid sexual identity.

John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) in 1889
The first writer who spoke out in favour of homosexuality was John Addington Symonds in his work A Problem in Greek Ethics (written in 1873 but first published ten years later, in 1883). Symonds himself was openly homosexual, and for a greater part of his life lived in Switzerland, practising an open marriage with his wife Catherine (with whom he had several children), who did not seem to have objections to Symonds having sexual relationships with a number of young men. It is the first work to discuss the history of homosexuality, or as Symonds defined it, 'sexual inversion'. Later, Havelock Ellis would define sexual inversion as 'sexual instinct turned by inborn constitutional abnormality toward persons of the same sex'. It is important to remember that 'abnormality' here did not mean something repugnant or abhorrent, but simply something different from the norm: the norm in this case being heterosexuality.

In A Problem in Greek Ethics, Symonds writes of 'undiseased psychological complexity and noble emotionality in male love', showing examples of various cases of homosexuality and same-sex friendship in order to illustrate how the Greeks, 'a great and highly-developed race', were much more permissive of those kinds of relations than his Victorian contemporaries. It is significant that one of the first texts of homosexual apology treads the safe line of dealing with the distant rather than the immediate past, or, even riskier, the present. The Victorians considered Ancient Greece an ideal in many ways, so it was very clever of Symonds to use it as a backdrop for his attempt to destigmatize love between men.

It was only in 1891 that Symonds was ready to address contemporary problems, when he wrote A Problem in Modern Ethics. Before this, men who identified as 'inverts' in Britain had to rely solely on continental works of sexology by theorists such as Richard Von Krafft-Ebing and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and it is the continental tradition that inspired Symonds – and others after him – to write about this topic. Although Krafft-Ebing and Ulrichs were what we could call pioneers of LGBT rights, their works were not readily available in Britain, and no English translations existed. By writing A Problem in Modern Ethics, Symonds tried to remove negative prejudices attached to homosexuality:

It is the common belief that a male who loves his own sex must be despicable, degraded, depraved, vicious, and incapable of humane or generous sentiments. If Greek history did not contradict this supposition, a little patient enquiry into contemporary manners would suffice to remove it. But people will not take this trouble about a matter, which (...) they "touch with reluctance and despatch with impatience." Those who are obliged to do so find to their surprise that "among the men who are subject to this deplorable vice there are even quite intelligent, talented, and highly-placed persons, of excellent and even noble character."

The vulgar expect to discover the objects of their outraged animosity in the scum of humanity. But these may be met with every day in drawing-rooms, law-courts, banks, universities, mess-rooms; on the bench, the throne, the chair of the professor; under the blouse of the workman, the cassock of the priest, the epaulettes of the officer, the smock-frock of the ploughman, the wig of the barrister, the mantle of the peer, the costume of the actor, the tights of the athlete, the gown of the academician. (J.A. Symonds, A Problem in Modern Ethics, 1891)

What is important to note is the final chapter of the book, entitled Suggestions on the subject of sexual inversion in relation to law and education, where Symonds talks about 'the vulgar error that antiphysical desires are invariably voluntary, and the result either of inordinate lust or of satiated appetites'. He speaks out against this belief, and here is the true historical value of this text – in the hypothesis that homosexuality, as a sexual identity expressed through sexual practice or sentiment, is something one is born with, rather than anything one inherits, or adopts as result of a pernicious environment. This kind of hypothesis would pave the way for future works discussing with homosexuality and queer issues, and Symonds himself would with Havelock Ellis co-author one of the most important books on the subject, Sexual Inversion, published after his death in 1897.