Home > Reviews > Revisiting YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (spoilers)

Revisiting YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (spoilers)

I decided to check Barry Levinson’s 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes out of the library, partly because of my recent watch-through of the Basil Rathbone Holmes series, but mainly because I recently re-listened to my LP of Bruce Broughton’s terrific score for the film, which used to be one of my favorite and most often played LPs. (Yes, I still have a phonograph and a small collection of LPs that I haven’t yet replaced with CDs. But I only occasionally get around to listening to them.) I remembered having a moderately positive opinion of the film, though a lot of that was no doubt due to the score. I’m afraid my revisit left me somewhat underwhelmed.

Levinson is known for dramas like Diner, The Natural, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Rain Man, but Young Sherlock Holmes was his venture into more fantastic ’80s blockbuster territory, in a film produced by Steven Spielberg and written by future Home Alone/Harry Potter director Chris Columbus. The film (whose opening titles directly homage the Rathbone series) postulates that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson first met at a London boarding school in their adolescence — something that a caption at the end of the film admits is merely an extracanonical speculation, since the filmmakers didn’t wish to offend Holmes purists. It’s just as well, though, since there’s a lot about the movie that doesn’t really fit that well with Holmes canon, either factually or stylistically.

Holmes is played by Nicholas Rowe, a narrow-faced, sleepy-eyed actor who looks more like a young Tom Baker than a young Holmes (although Baker played Holmes in a 1982 Hound of the Baskervilles miniseries, his first post-Doctor Who role). Rowe is a bit too understated in the role, but reasonably effective considering he was around 18 at the time. Watson is played by Alan Cox (then about 15 years old), who’s okay but doesn’t make a huge impression. This Watson is pretty much in the Nigel Bruce vein, a relatively slow-witted comic-relief figure (albeit the same age as Holmes instead of significantly older) — indeed, Holmes calls him quite harsh things like “buffoon” on occasion, even though their interaction is played as friendly. But Watson does get a couple of moments to shine — one point where he devises a clever if contrived way to save Holmes from a fire and stop the villain’s escape at the same time, and a bit at the end where he finally solves a riddle Holmes posed early in the movie.

The charming Sophie Ward (2 years Rowe’s senior) plays Holmes’s love interest Elizabeth — since this Holmes is more open and emotional than he became later in life, and the film purports to explore what events caused him to close off. Elizabeth’s uncle (or guardian?) is the eccentric Professor Waxflatter, a mentor of Holmes who’s established to be the source of his deerstalker cap and the “Elementary, my dear ___” catchphrase used by most prior cinematic versions of Holmes. He’s also a rather goofy character who keeps trying to invent a working ornithopter, one of the primary sources of Spielberg-style visual spectacle in the film. Even granting that this was a film largely aimed at young viewers, giving Holmes a mentor figure this cartoonish seems incongruous. And perhaps redundant, since Holmes has a second mentor in fencing instructor Rathe (Anthony Higgins), who’s his intellectual match and urges him not to give into his emotions so much.

The other source of visual spectacle comes from the villains, the Cult of Rame Tep, who use blowgun darts to inject their victims with hallucinogens that give them terrifying visions that drive them to their deaths. The visions are the primary visual-effects sequences in the film, generally using puppetry and stop-motion animation to create the horrific creatures the victims envision — yet the film is notable for featuring the first ever use of computer animation to create a photorealistic motion picture character, more or less, when a priest hallucinates a stained-glass knight coming to life and trying to kill him. The digital animation was done by a division of Lucasfilm known as Pixar, under the supervision of an animator named John Lasseter. You might have heard of one or two later things they did.

I suppose the hallucinogen gimmick was a reasonable way to include fantasy FX sequences in a Sherlock Holmes movie without breaking its reality, but in execution it doesn’t really work. The idea is supposed to be that the victims are all scared to death, basically, but they keep dying in rather contrived and implausible ways. The first victim jumps out a window when he thinks his room is on fire — okay. But the second, the priest, just runs out into a mostly empty road and just happens to run right in front of the single oncoming carriage at just the right moment to get trampled. And when Waxflatter hallucinates monsters attacking him and climbing inside his waistcoat, he just happens to be in a shop containing large knives and picks up one to stab himself in the chest. Seriously? This seems like a very unreliable form of murder. There’s no way to predict what will be hallucinated or how the person will respond. Any of them could’ve been spared by luck — say, if the priest had run out into the road ten seconds earlier or later. There’s a bit where Detective Sergeant Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) accidentally pokes himself with a poison thorn Holmes has recovered, then later reports that the men of Scotland Yard had to stop him from hanging himself. Okay, why would hallucinating a terrifying attack drive him to attempt hanging himself? The implication was that the drug made one suicidal, but then shouldn’t it evoke despair rather than terror?

Also, how come nobody who’s hit by one of the thorns is aware of the fact? We see in the Lestrade scene that Holmes has recovered several thorns that are of easily visible size — presumably the ones that the cultists had hit him, Watson, and Elizabeth with in an earlier sequence. So how come none of the other victims finds the thorn upon slapping a hand to their neck? There’s even a scene later on where another victim is struck by a thorn while Holmes watches and dismisses it as just an insect bite, with Holmes unbelievably failing to notice what really happened.

Still, the sequence where Holmes is struck by a thorn is one of the most interesting, since his hallucination involves his father’s rejection and his mother’s grief after his inquisitive nature uncovered his father’s compromising secret, implicitly an affair. It seems more an actual source of guilt than a conjectural fear, and it makes me think we’re missing a more interesting story about Holmes’s childhood than the one we’re getting. Meanwhile, poor Watson just gets a comedy hallucination where cartoonish, anthropomorphic stop-motion pastries force him to eat them, which — what? Not very revealing.

The other big source of spectacle comes from the fact that the cultists have built an underground faux pyramid/temple in London, where they do a bunch of chanting and sacrifice young women for nebulous reasons. The Rame Tep chant is the musical highlight of the film for me, a potent pastiche of Orff’s Carmina Burana with an Egyptian twist. But the cultist angle is kind of silly, particularly the cult’s main assassin, the school nurse who turns out to be a shaven-headed female cultist (Susan Fleetwood). Rathe turns out to be the cult’s leader, a half-English Egyptian named Eh-tar (Rathe backward) seeking revenge on the men who desecrated his cult’s temple and called in British troops that destroyed his parents’ village. (American movies and TV shows have a bad habit of assuming that Egypt is still full of cults worshipping the ancient gods, even though it’s been a Muslim country for nearly 1400 years.)

The movie climaxes with a battle between Holmes and Rathe in a location that I’ve only now realized is meant to be the docks along the frozen River Thames. I knew it was an iced-over body of water, but I never knew where it was supposed to be before. I guess I owe it to Doctor Who: “Thin Ice” for depicting the frozen Thames and giving me the context I’d been missing. Rathe is defeated and seemingly dies below the ice, but not before he shoots and fatally wounds Elizabeth, the tragedy that supposedly turned Holmes into a solitary, closed-off adult with no interest in women. It’s a classic fridging that doesn’t hold up well today, a female lead being created specifically so that she can die to motivate the male hero. And in light of more modern portrayals of Holmes and insights into the autistic spectrum, it seems naive to assume that there would need to be an instigating event to explain why Holmes acted the way he did, something that changed him from a more “normal” way of acting. At the time, it wasn’t an unreasonable idea, I suppose. But it feels like a relic of an earlier era.

Indeed, this film came out just months after the end of the first series of Granada Television’s landmark Holmes adaptations starring Jeremy Brett, which were notable for being more faithful to the original canon than most prior screen adaptations and downplaying or avoiding a lot of the standard screen tropes like the deerstalker, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary,” and most of all the characterization of Watson as a buffoon. Yet Young Sherlock Holmes gleefully embraced all those tropes. Which might’ve been fine if it had come out a year or two earlier, but in the wake of the Brett series, it must have felt like a throwback as soon as it came out.

The end of the film is a bit notable for having a post-credits tag scene, something less common then than today, although they set it up by having film footage continue under the entire end credits. The tag, perhaps predictably, is that Rathe has survived and signs his name in a hotel ledger as “Moriarty.” I guess it had to happen, given how determined the movie was to explain the origin of everything else in Holmes canon.

All in all, a watchable film with a decent cast and good production values, but conceptually somewhat weak and trying a bit too hard to turn Sherlock Holmes into something in the vein of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies. It might be worthy of curiosity for foreshadowing Chris Columbus’s involvement with the Harry Potter franchise, since there are similarities in the English boarding school setting and the focus on a lead trio of two boys and a girl. But that’s kind of a tenuous link, and surely coincidental. Anyway, I feel the Potter films Columbus directed are by far the weakest and most prosaic in the franchise, so I’m not surprised to find his writing rather underwhelming as well. Still, I strongly recommend Bruce Broughton’s soundtrack.

Whatever the flaws in Young Sherlock Holmes, it was always my hope that one day we’d get to see the grown-up Rowe and Cox reunite as Holmes and Watson, whether in a Spielberg-produced sequel to YSH or just some other Holmes production. I gather this almost happened a few years ago with a low-budget production called Sherlock Holmes vs. Frankenstein, but apparently the crowdfunded film has not actually been completed yet and the plan to cast Rowe and Cox fell through. Rowe did, however, make a brief cameo in the Ian McKellen film Mr. Holmes, playing a cinematic version of Holmes that the elderly genuine article watched in the theater. And Rowe and Cox are currently around 51 and 47 respectively, around the ages that Rathbone and Bruce would’ve been in the first couple of years of the Universal series (yes, Bruce was actually a few years younger than Rathbone, though he looked much older). So maybe it could still happen someday.

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  1. September 24, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    I’m fond of this film despite its flaws, but the score is its greatest achievement. The most recent CD releases are expanded and take two discs to contain all the music. If you treasure the LP the double-CD should be on your Christmas list.

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