In the Shadow of Rathbone: Nicholas Rowe in Young Sherlock Holmes

In the Shadow of Rathbone

To be sure, it’s macaroni and cheese. But it’s that really good mac and cheese that’s oven-baked and has toasted breadcrumbs on top.

I’m talking about Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). Part of the fun of watching this movie — possibly the most fun Sherlock Holmes film that isn’t a parody — are the Harry Potter moments, the Indiana Jones moments, and there’s even an E.T. the Extraterrestrial moment!

Yet, somehow, it remains true to the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters and their cases.

Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow

I was skeptical about this film mostly due to the challenge of finding a young actor capable of getting Sherlock right. Nicholas Rowe does very well. Yes, he’s got the tall, thin physique, but it’s really his mature voice that prevents his portrayal from being cutesy. Holmes ain’t cutesy. This movie is cutesy at times — but Holmes mustn’t be cutesy. And despite his pouty mouth and sad-puppy eyes, Rowe strikes the right balance of hardheaded level-headedness and occasional lapses of snappishness. The great detective isn’t always able to keep his emotions in check, after all.


Watching Watson

Alan Cox  plays Watson, and he’s allowed to be cutesy. A bit. The business with this boy-Watson’s weakness for pastry is where the film makers go for cuddly-wuddly — but otherwise, Cox plays the faithful-yet-put-upon companion with the proper British acquiescence. Watson also gets his moment of heroism! At one point, with a single stroke of genius, he both saves Holmes and stops the coach making off with the damsel in distress. (More on this damsel in distress below.)

In many films, the relationship between Holmes and Watson is presented as “a given” rather than as something that needs at least a bit of exploration. There is some attention paid to the topic here, though. In that this is an origin story, we see Watson first meet Holmes at school. The future doctor is the new kid, and he finds a modicum of acceptance from the future detective. That explains why Watson connects with Holmes at first. By the end of the film, however, we’re given a very touching reason why Watson made it a lifelong connection. To say any more would be unkind of me.


Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

It’s clear that screenwriter Chris Columbus and director Barry Levinson held the original Holmes stories in high enough esteem that the film opens and closes with “disclaimers” about it taking liberties with Doyle’s canon. And it’s fun to watch the familiar Sherlockian accoutrements — the pipe, the deerstalker cap, the Inverness cape, even the phrase “The game is afoot!” — come together piece by piece.

Columbus went on to direct and produce the early Harry Potter films, which perhaps begins to explain the prescient Hogwarts moments. Watch especially for the revenge that Holmes extracts from his classroom rival and think of Draco Malfoy.

Columbus presumably hadn’t yet met J.K. Rowling, though. It’s too bad because his character Elizabeth is barely more than a damsel in distress, one Hermione Granger might deem a dismal damsel indeed. Though ably played by Sophie Ward, Elizabeth is also no Irene Adler in terms of intelligence and resourcefulness. I choose to tell myself that this lack of complexity or mystery explains Sherlock’s interest in her. In Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” Holmes says that “the motives of women are so inscrutable. . . . Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling tongs.” Elizabeth’s straightforward transparency might be her lure for adolescent Holmes, but it also causes her to disappear amid the film’s parade of distinctive, offbeat characters.

What this scene needs are some letter-carrying owls and moving portraits!

Steven Spielberg served as producer, which explains the echoes of Indiana Jones and E.T. Raiders of the Lost Arc was released in 1981, E.T. the Extraterrestrial a year later, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984. Young Sherlock Holmes appeared in 1985, and Bruce Broughton, who composed its music, seems to give John Williams a tip of his baton at the appropriate times for the earlier scores.

Despite its obvious, Spielbergian family-friendliness, Young Sherlock Holmes does something rather daring in the end, something I mustn’t spoil. Let me just say this part of the finale confirms that the makers of the film were more committed to Doyle’s creation than to formula and profit. It was an admirably bold decision.

Oh, yes. Keep watching — or fast forward — through the closing credits to the ending after the ending. You won’t be terrifically shocked, I imagine, but there is one more clever touch in this film of clever touches.

Go to the In the Shadow of Rathbone: Sherlock Holmes Movie Reviews main page.

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