Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) Review

I have always thought that this was one of Barry Levinson’s best and most enjoyable films and wondered why it didn’t do better at the box office. If any movie ever demanded franchise status it was this one.

Some ‘Baker Street’ fans get their dander up proclaiming this as some sort of sacrilege to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but the film begins stating that this is an original story and not specifically based on any of the author’s books. It reiterates that at the end, so why that causes such ire is beyond me.

Written by Spielberg disciple Chris Columbus, the story moves more briskly than a traditional mystery story. It more towards adventure. This is a ‘family’ film, after all. Doyle’s classic characters Holmes and Watson  are taken back to their school years. I don’t believe they were supposed to have known each as children, so this is one of the liberties taken. A first meeting between the two is depicted as well as the first meeting with another character (a very important one) from the book series. Has one of the better end credits sequences that adds a little surprise after the film’s story has ended. It has a nice surprise that is far more significant to the film than what has been presented in the Marvel films (” Have you heard of the Avengers Project?”)

The casting of Nicholas Rowe was right on. He not only looks like Holmes, but he captures the aloof quality of the character. He is believably intelligent and portrays Holmes in a way that you can easily see how he would have difficulty in social situations. He has an arrogance, but not so much that you’ll dislike the character. You feel for him when he has his comeuppance.

The fact that he is younger gives more vitality to the main character. Sherlock Holmes is largely perceived as a purely cerebral character. With a younger Holmes, there is a little less talk and a lot more physicality. Running… climbing… dueling… This actually rejuvenated the character long before it was done to ridiculous levels in the recent update/revision.

Alan Cox is the eyes of the film as Watson. The story is strained through his character, but the narration is voiced by a much older Watson. Cox does a good job with subtle comic relief and has a good rapport with Rowe. He wasn’t a complete contrast to Holmes, but they differed in their opinions enough to get many enjoyable disagreements.

Holmes is also granted a love interest in this, played by the lovely Sophie Ward. She isn’t quite JUST a damsel in distress, although there’s nothing wrong with that. I let myself fall into that trap of bowing to contemporary political correctness, sometimes. Now it seems if there is a female presented, it’s frowned upon if the role isn’t an empowerment fantasy, but I digress. I could go on about what makes stories, especially of this kind, work, but I won’t. In any case, she is more than just a pretty face in this. You can see why someone like Holmes would be enamored by her.

The cast is made up of mostly British actors. They generally speak with a certain diction. There is an importance on language more so than here . Even the auxiliary characters seem to have a little more credibility to them, at least in my  mind. Anthony Higgins  is understated as Holmes’ mentor.

He and some of the other character actors like Freddie Jones help to make each new encounter less than mundane. A suspense/mystery movie like this tries to not make too much standout so that you’ll have a harder time figuring out what’s really going on. They do hedge some on Holmes’ logical deductions… Sometimes information is withheld from the audience that would allow them to figure things out as Holmes would. There is some cheating there, but nothing that would take away from the enjoyment of the film.

Something tells me that JK Rowling has seen this film. Sherlock Holmes stories have all lent themselves into the occult or mysticism to some degree, even if the supernatural elements are ‘scientifically’ explained later with ‘elementary deducements’. This also was an early example of how to properly tell an ‘origin’ story for a franchise character. Lately, everyone points to “Batman Begins” but this was a textbook update. It showed all the introductions (even to the villain/arch-nemesis), it showed a step by step process of how they came to possessing their various paraphernalia (such as the coat, hat and pipe) and it frames who the character is by what they endure/face in this initial outing.

Stephen Goldblatt does maybe his best work here as the Director Of Photography.The wintery scenery of Victorian era of London is captured with unmitigated beauty and has a Spielberg-ian feel (obviously). The lighting and the textural detailing in the film are as good as it gets. The movie is like one big Curio Shop and the fact that there is a boutique of antiquities in the film goes without saying. A lot of thought went into making these incredible sets seem as naturalistic as possible.

The FX are also extraordinary and give the Victorian era setting a certain gothic dimension. Groundbreaking would be another good description since these were some of the first sequences to incorporate computer generated images. This had some direct ties to Spielberg’s TV series at the time: “Amazing Stories”.

Although clearly aiming to be a family film, some of the situations in the film probably did and will turn off parents of smaller children. There are some extremely dark situations depicted. Frankly, I would have loved this (and did) as a kid. It’s dark, but only dark in the way that a movie touched by the Hand of Spielberg could be. This is family entertainment with a brain; a true hidden gem and I highly recommend it.

4.5 of 5 whatevers.

I also made my Best of 1985 and my  Top 100 of the 1980s.


2 Responses to “Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) Review”

  1. I became a fan of Sherlock Holmes after seeing Nicholas Rowe’s playing. He was born to be Sherlock, besides talented is physically perfect.

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