Thursday, May 11, 2017

When Sherlock Holmes Was Young

Nicholas Rowe as a teenage Sherlock.
Holmes purists may quibble that Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) is an insult to the classic mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After all, Holmes and Watson certainly didn’t meet as schoolboys, as this movie implies. But let those hardcore fans quibble all they want. Young Sherlock Homes is a fanciful “What if?” movie which--though it doesn't always succeed--might have pleased Doyle.

The gripping opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the lively mystery. A Victorian gentleman is shot with a blow dart just before entering a restaurant. When he starts to eat his favorite roasted poultry, his dinner suddenly comes to life and attacks him. As he fends off the snapping bird, we see what the other restaurant patrons see: a raving lunatic screaming and flinging his arms at the air. When the same gentleman's coat tries to strangle him later that evening, he jumps out a two-story window to his death. Thus, the mystery is afoot.

Watson finds a key clue.
Behind this cloak of crime is the story of teenagers Holmes and Watson, who meet when the bookish Watson transfers to a London boarding school. When Watson first encounters him, Holmes is frustrated that he has not yet mastered the violin--after all, he’s been playing it for three days. Considered egotistical by his peers and teachers, Holmes is bored until he, his girlfriend Elizabeth, and Watson become involved in murder.

Despite its intriguing opening, the mystery falters halfway through the film. The lack of viable suspects makes the villain obvious. And Holmes doesn't even have to use his famous deductive reasoning to solve the puzzle. One of the would-be victims tells him all the details. There are also a few too many special effects and a Steven Spielberg-inspired flying sequence (he was an executive producer).

The fact that the movie still entertains is a tribute to director Barry Levinson and his fine young cast. Levinson (“The Natural”) has lovingly created an atmospheric, snowy Victorian London. Filled with fleeting shadows and eccentric characters, the film unfolds like an amber-tinted postcard from the past. It’s rare when a film can be enjoyed for its sheer visual elegance.

As Holmes, Nicholas Rowe delivers a crisp, slightly aloof performance that is perfectly balanced by Alan Cox’s charming, awkward Watson. There is a strong rapport between the two that keeps the movie moving even when the plot is not.

Screenwriter Chris Columbus has fun explaining the origins of such famous Holmesian objects as the deerstalker cap, the briar pipe, and the Inverness coat. It's intriguing to note several similarities to the Harry Potter books which J.K. Rowling would write 12 years later. The first films, of course, were directed by Chris Columbus.

Be sure to stick around for the post-credits sequence.

10 comments:

  1. Sounds like a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours. I've been a Holmes fan for much of my life, and that's much too long to worry about being a purist. This past Christmas I gave my niece her first Basil of Baker Street books.

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  2. I've loved this movie since I was a kid, and always regretted that there was no sequel. Nicholas Rowe and Alan Cox are both wonderful and fun to watch. True it gets pretty fanciful, but it still seems truer to the source material than either of Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes, Action Hero" films.

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  3. I have always liked this movie, I found the DVD in a bargain bin many years ago and it still gets a viewing when I come cross it in my Movie closet. My then 90 year old grandmother loved it. I think it would have made a great TV series, even now.

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    1. I agree. There was a lot of potential for additional stories.

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  4. This sounds like a lot of fun! I'm a new Sherlock Holmes fan – I hadn't read any of the stories until I started watching the BBC Sherlock series a couple of years ago. I'm going to look for this film. I know I'll like it. Thanks!

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  5. I remember enjoying "Young Sherlock Holmes" quite a bit, even though it did not utilize Holmes's deductive reasoning skills masterfully. It was a clever idea and he and young Watson were quite entertaining in a wonderfully atmospheric setting.

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    1. Both young actors were well cast. I just saw the adult Nicholas Rowe in an episode of KINGDOM.

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  6. The BBC Young Sherlock is really very good (currently available on Youtube); I didn't much care for this one, though it's heart was in the right place.

    ~Clayton o' Phantom Empires

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  7. Sorry, it was Granada tv. :)

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  8. I love this movie! It was a childhood favorite, and a film my grandmother particularly adored too ( having a love for mysteries and snowy London settings ). However, you are quite right in noting that halfway through it slacks off in pace. The ending could have been better, too, but overall it's a fun film. I wish the three principal leads headed up the Young Sherlock television series. That would have been wonderful to watch!

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