The Art of Anachronism: ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Revisited

by Tito W. James

Back in 2009, director Guy Richie (The Gentlemen) made a hardboiled adaptation of Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. Now that the third film is slated to release this year, I thought it would be a great time to look back at the original and the legacy it left behind.

Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, A Game of Shadows stood out because of their ability to blend modern film techniques in a period piece setting. Most interpretations of Sherlock Holmes depict the detective as an erudite gentleman free from the trappings of the lower class. American film noir sought to invert this pompous English archetype by making their detectives gritty, morally grey, addicts. Richie’s Sherlock Holmes is a blend between the two versions of the detective, combining intellect with fisticuffs.

Richie uses the visual language of film and editing to communicate Sherlock’s mental abilities. A perfect example of this is Sherlock’s ability to slow down time and figure out fights in his mind. It’s a fantastic scene that makes this version of Sherlock Holmes distinctive from all other interpretations.

However, as with anything that truly breaks the mold, there have been a fair share of imitators and films who missed the mark.

2011’s The Three Musketeers was the most notable Sherlock-rip-off that only has loose ties to the original source material. The film feels less like a creative steampunk reinterpretation and more like a series of action-movie tropes shoved into an 18th century plot.

Guy Richie returned to his edgy alternate history in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. As a fan of Richie’s directing style and the myth of King Arthur, this should have been a match made in heaven. However, the film lacks the singular vision of an auteur and is plagued by dozens of ideas that were intended for six films set in a Camelot-shared-universe. The film does have its moments but the more it tries to be “cool” the less interesting it becomes.

Robin Hood (2018) is another example of style over substance. The film throws historical accuracy out the window then lights it on fire with a molotov cocktail. This is alternate history where crossbows are AK-47s, knights carrying a riot shields, and all the poor people wear designer clothes. The plot is just a shameless bootleg of the Dark Knight trilogy complete with a character turning into Two-Face.

Mixing modern action choreography into a historical setting is no easy task and Netflix’s The Witcher series does it better than anyone I’ve seen recently. The fights are bloody and visceral but every movement is clear to follow.

There is an art to anachronism. As a fan of what the original Sherlock Holmes was able to accomplish, I’m interested to see more of this style of alternate history. Seeing the number of films that follow in Sherlock’s footsteps, I’m clearly not alone.

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