It might have been titled A Study in Compulsion. It might feel like it was written by Raymond Chandler. Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004) attempts to bring a sharp-edged realism to the mean — and terribly foggy — streets of London by presenting Holmes relapsing into drug addiction, chain-smoking “coffin nails” instead of his charming pipe, and investigating a string of murders motivated by sexual perversion.
The film returns to what I call the Compulsive Detective version of Holmes and adds to it a Hard-Boiled Holmes sensibility. This winds up being the film’s weakness — and its strength.
Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter,” Dr. Watson explains: “For years I had gradually weaned [Holmes] from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus, but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping. . . .”
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking asks: what if that fiend had awoken?
The film’s very first shot winds through an opium den to reveal Holmes, played by Rupert Everett, indulging in the drug (something Doyle’s tales suggest he did not do — through he does gather information by pretending to do so in “The Man with the Twisted Lip.”) Perhaps the filmmakers decided that an opium den made for a more visually interesting opening than watching Holmes inject his arm with his seven-percent solution of cocaine, which would be more in tune with Doyle’s canon and which he does later in the film. Certainly, the opium smoke swirls nicely with the fog-laden streets in many subsequent shots, smoke and fog being the film’s visual metaphor for ambiguity.
Or perhaps the filmmakers were deliberately violating canon to emphasize the point that this detective has fundamental similarities with the criminal he’s pursuing. After all, as Holmes himself points out, he and his quarry are both addicts, victims of their respective compulsions. Such parallels appear often in the hard-boiled detective genre, which rebelled against the lack of moral ambiguity found in earlier mysteries — including the Holmes stories.
If I’m right, playing this dirtier detective put Everett in a tough situation. Can an actor shine in a role requiring him to play drug-addled, pale, morose — and Holmes? He looks downright vampiric at times. Instead of the animated and crisp vocal delivery of, say, Basil Rathbone, Everett speaks with a husky near-mumble. It fits this version of Holmes, but it’s also difficult to enjoy. And the portrayal raises the question of what’s become of the Holmes we thought we knew.
This is Ian Hart’s second outing as Dr. Watson. His first was in a 2002 BBC production of The Hound of the Baskervilles (reviewed here). Interestingly, Hart also plays Arthur Conan Doyle in the 2004 film Finding Neverland. Here, though, he portrays Watson as kind, sensible, dedicated, and a bit funny looking. The character has moved away from Baker Street at this point, and he’s engaged to wed.
To the film’s credit, there is some good exploration of why Watson remains so loyal to the often-prickly and now addiction-ridden Holmes. From the start, the two are portrayed in a determined-doctor/problem-patient relationship. This gives Watson a certain superiority over Holmes, a nice reversal rarely found in Holmes films.
The doctor knows that the best therapy for this particular patient is a baffling crime. Once the case is over, though, a last and lingering close-up on Holmes raises the question of what will happen to the detective now that Watson has gone off to be (yet again) someone else’s companion. I’ve often thought that, with some exceptions, the character of Holmes stirs more interest than do his cases, and this film works on that idea.
Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle
I trust I’ve made it clear that screenwriter Alan Cubitt and director Simon Cellan Jones attempted something provocatively new with Doyle’s character here. As I say above, Doyle set up the possibility of Holmes’ fall from sobriety. With that in mind, one could see the film as following a lead offered by the character’s own creator.
However, exactly who or what pushed the great detective beyond his former recreational use of cocaine is never explained. This might have been a much different film if it had, perhaps one more satisfying to Holmes purists. As it stands, we’re given a Holmes that simply seems like he belongs in some other sub-genre and in some later, more dark-and-disillusioned era.
That said, we are very clearly shown that this story is set in a new era. On the DVD commentary track, the director and producer say the story is set in 1903. Edward is king now; he even makes a brief appearance. The Victorian period has given way to the newfangled 20th-century with its telephones, its fingerprinting, and its psychoanalysis. Regarding the last, Watson’s fiancée is an American (from the New World — get it?), a fellow doctor who specializes in diseases of the mind. She lends Holmes a book on deviant psychology that steers him toward the case’s solution. This comes off as rather conveeeeenient, since there doesn’t seem to be any other reason for Watson to be engaged to a shrink. Well, yeah, they’re both doctors, but . . .
But twisted minds aren’t the only twist in this case. There’s another one that might strike many viewers as equally conveeeeeenient. I won’t spoil it except to say it feels more like something one might find in a Gothic mystery from the early 1800s, not the early 1900s and not the early 2000s looking back at the early 1900s.
Despite these weaknesses, I like the notion of Holmes failing to keep up with a changing world. There’s something very human there (and my own Vera Van Slyke, despite being a progressive woman, often complains about the technological innovations of that first decade). In a farewell speech, Holmes borrows a line from “His Last Bow” to describe Watson: “You are the one fixed point in a changing age.” In the end, left to himself, Holmes is without an anchor on a foggy sea of uncertainty.
It’s not an image of the great detective that we like to see, but that just might be its artistic strength. This is a film that tries to do something innovative with the Holmes character, to explore him more deeply than most films. He turns out to be less heroic and more vulnerable than many viewers might have expected. A film that upsets expectations keeps its storytelling fresh. And it prevents us from appreciating only the predictable.