Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

The second Sherlock Holmes film directed by Guy Ritchie–“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows“–recently appeared in theaters, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, respectively.  While some critics have not liked the more action-oriented approach toward Holmes’s character that Downey brings to the role, I’ve accepted it for what it is and concur with Roger Ebert in the overall positive assessment of this second installment and find that it offers a reasonably satisfying blend of the cerebral and the physical.  (Though I should note that I really prefer the somewhat updated, yet still rather traditional, life that Cumberbatch and Freeman breathe into the roles in the BBC’s brilliantly done Sherlock series.)

Especially valuable are the dramatic scenes where Holmes and Moriarty, in classic form, match wits.  There is a wonderfully set chess match between the two that parallels the action.  One of the things I like most about this film takes us back to a theme that Mr. Pond explored in an earlier post on villians, doubles, and shadows.  The conflict between good and evil without is palpably present, as is the parallel conflict within as part of the human condition.  Moriarty reminds Holmes of both just when Holmes thinks he’s on the brink of “winning this round.”   The entire film is, indeed, a “game of shadows” both in content and visual representation.

I’ll say no more, since I’m keen to hear what all of you fellow Sherlockians think.  Have you seen the film?  Liked it?  Disliked it?  Don’t plan to see it?  Why?

9 thoughts on “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

  1. Haven’t seen it yet & probably won’t until it comes out on Amazon Instant Video.

    I had been worried about the film since I liked the first one so much. But your review and one by Thomas McKenzie have convinced me to give it a watch later on.

  2. I enjoyed the first Downey film, and liked this one even more.

    Like the first film, the pace is very fast. The relationship between Holmes and Watson is still key. The fun and humor stem from most of the same sources as the first film.

    Adler disappears from the story fairly early, and the cult aspects of the first film are not present in the second. Holmes and Watson travel away from England. This, added to the pace, means that we don’t get quite the same sense of London. It also means that Inspector Lestrade and Constable Clark are barely glimpsed.

    Mycroft is different than I’d imagined, chiefly because we’re privy to his house. (His home life reflects that he is Sherlock’s brother — a bit eccentric.) Once I got over this initial surprise, I enjoyed Stephen Fry’s performance very much.

    The plot doesn’t have a lot of mystery. Holmes knows from the first that Moriarty is the villain, and neither Moriarty’s methods nor his ultimate plan really drive the investigation. Instead, Holmes is out to stop Moriarty, and if possible, prove him guilty. However, this seemed true to the book, so it didn’t particularly bother me.

    There are quite a few of the small details that come from the original Doyle stories. As TMac notes, the ending between Holmes and Moriarty is remarkably like the book. So is the first face-to-face meeting between them.

    I’ve seen other versions of Moriarty, but this is my favorite. The character was very well-handled in this film. Genius, ruthless, and a definite match for Sherlock Holmes. Jared Harris does a great job in this role.

    It might be interesting to compare Voldemort and Harry versus Moriarty and Holmes.

  3. Thanks, miles365, for your thoughts on the film. I pretty much agree with all that you say, and want to underscore what a great job Harris does as Moriarty. That Holmes/Moriarty dynamic straight out of the original tales was, for me, the heart of the successful aspects of this film. Some of Downey’s best acting moments arise in his intellectual maneuvering with Harris’s character.

    I’ve got lots of thoughts on comparing Voldemort and Harry versus Moriarty and Holmes, which is part of the reason why I linked back to Mr. Pond’s fascinating earlier piece which was suggestive of just such comparison/contrast.

    In some ways, Holmes and Moriarty are “mirrors.” They both are super intelligent, cool and rational, willing to do what it takes to achieve their ends, eccentric, find most normal people boring and unchallenging. In some weird sense, Holmes needs Moriarty as the sometimes-one-step-ahead-of-him (or is he?) arch-enemy who brings out the very best of Holmes’s intellect. Holmes lives for that mental stimulation, and is willing to die if and when he takes out Moriarty for good.

    However, they are divided over what they stand and fight for: Moriarty for wanton destruction and power over others (which he states is merely part of human nature and cannot ever be stamped out for good even if it’s temporarily thwarted), and Holmes for minimizing the damage and sparing society of the likes of Moriarty.

    Mr. Pond has already discoursed better than I could on the Harry/Voldemort mirroring/doubling. In many ways, the analyis there is similar. The talents and abilities of the two are pretty evenly matched, one chooses good and the other chooses evil.

    Two main points of difference that I’ll quickly note are:

    (1) Holmes is a willing hero from the get-go, so we do not see his growth into a hero’s journey, unlike Harry who is mentored into his heroism. Whereas Holmes consciously and willingly thrives on his struggle with Moriarty, Harry is not that keen on having the “best of his talents brought out” through struggle. He does it because he knows it’s right, but doesn’t like it. Holmes seems to like it a bit….

    (2) Moriarty also comes onto the scene as a full-blooded arch-enemy, and while he is often more “rational” and intellectual in demeanor (and hence more sinister than the sometimes cartoonish Voldemort), we also don’t get to see why he became that way. So while I find Moriarty more interesting in one way as a villain, I also find Voldemort’s descent into villainy more intelligible (though not excusable) and hence more interesting in another way. This intelligibility also provides the reader/viewer with a sense of hope that the way out of this good/evil struggle is through love. I don’t get this same hopeful sense from the Holmes/Moriarty struggle.

  4. I did see the movie. As in the first installment, the lighting and camerawork were top-notch. The dialogue was great, as well. With the addition of Moriarty, however, the series thematic and character dynamics were raised. One typically sees genius as belonging to either a story’s protagonist or its villain, and thus the theme usually makes some statement about genius being a saving grace or an ingredient in megalomania. In the Sherlock Holmes world, though, these adversaries are matched in terms of intelligence. Here the theme vis-a-vis genius shifts to saying that intelligence is inherently neither good nor evil but that it can be used for either purpose, that it is a tool that can either heal or harm. This element is perhaps one reason why the characters have endured for so long.

  5. Well articulated and insightful point, Dominium Scriptorum! Genius/intelligence is a capacity (albeit, one that can be cultivated), and as such can be used for good or evil purposes. While not a fan of Immanuel Kant generally, he makes a similar point–one that I always illustrate in my classes with the Holmes/Moriarty example–in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals:

    “Moderation in emotions and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation” are “good in many respects, but . . . they are far from being rightly called good without qualification . . . . For without the principles of a good will, they can become extremely bad; the coolness of a villain makes him not only much more dangerous but also immediately more abominable in our eyes than he would have been regarded by us without it.”

    Part of the enduring horror and fascination of characters like Moriarty (and his more frequently and directly perceived army of criminal henchmen who commit most of the bad deeds), and why we are captivated by and root for Sherlock Holmes, is indeed owing to this sophisticated shifting of thematic ground.

    For we then need to seek answers at a different level of analysis. Why do Sherlock and Harry and Dumbledore (and Luke and Leia and …) choose the good rather than the bad, unlike their nefarious counterparts? What does it take to make the right choice, if it’s not a matter of how intelligent or powerful one is? At the risk of oversimplification, the essential points (which have been discussed often here) include: (1) wisdom, which itself is complex and requires a choice to attain out of (2) love–love for one’s own life and love for those who matter in one’s life and love for this wonderful world. (And I think Holmes has both of these–yes, even the latter, though he himself wouldn’t really put it that way.)

    Whence love…? Some other people on this site have written essays and posts on this topic of topics, and so I shall toss the ball back into the air and await the arrival of a seeker.

  6. SPOILER WARNING for those who haven’t yet seen the movie.

    Cbiondi, you said that in HP you get a sense of hope that the way out of this good/evil struggle is through love. I don’t get this same hopeful sense from the Holmes/Moriarty struggle.

    I agree as far as Doyle’s books go. I respectfully disagree about this movie.

    As Dominium Scriptorum said, these adversaries are matched in terms of intelligence. In this way, they are different from Voldemort and Harry. The shadow is even more obvious. But the shadow is seen as the darker side because the hero is distinguished not by abilities, but by love.

    Moriarty, like Voldemort, views love as a weakness. Adler and Watson are merely pawns, ways to get to Holmes.

    In contrast, the filmmakers really emphasized Holmes’ love for Watson. Despite Holmes constantly haranguing Watson about marriage, he delivers Watson to the church on time. He asks Moriarty to leave Watson out of this battle. He saves Mary and Watson when Moriarty refuses.

    Moriarty discounts the more ordinary Watson, but Holmes, who loves Watson, relies on him. Watson’s aim saves the day, but he is also responsible for rescuing Holmes from Moriarty. And, as Moriarty points out, Holmes cannot stop Moriarty’s plot and kill Moriarty at the same time. Holmes argues that though he himself may be absent from the room, his “methods are not.” Harry trusts in Hermione, Ron, and Neville to kill the snake. Holmes trusts Watson. Holmes can stop Moriarty, but he cannot win this game with his shadow without Watson, the one thing that distinguishes him from his shadow. It is only through love that Moriarty is really defeated.


    I entirely agree with you on this miles365. My apologies for not clearly disentangling Conan Doyle’s stories from this film; I appreciate your pressing and developing this crucial point. The missing sense of hope, indeed, was in reference to the stories. And I had the film in mind @6: “(And I think Holmes has both of these–yes, even the latter [i.e., love], though he himself wouldn’t really put it that way.)” It was precisely Holmes’s love for Watson I had in mind when I wrote that. The threat of losing the only friend he’s ever had only serves to provoke Holmes into redoubling his efforts and risking his life to thwart Moriarty–sort of like a momma-bear defending her cubs. I was touched beyond words when Holmes looked straight at Watson before “going over the side” with Moriarty.

    Love and trust and friendship win the day is certainly the motto, as you so well argue above. In addition, both of the examples of Holmes/Watson and Harry & his friends reflect the idea that autonomy and atomism are not the same thing. One can be a whole and strong self with a keen sense of one’s individual identity (autonomy) and be part of a network of like-minded friends and fellow-travellers. Moriarty and Voldemort are full of hubris, thinking that they can only be seen as strong by “going it alone” (atomism).

  8. You’re all making me feel like I should see this again. I wasn’t very impressed, like the first one a lot better, and actually almost fell asleep a couple times. It felt too much like the typical, “It’s sequel time, so let’s add a lot of big guns and explosions.” But I’ll give it another watch when it hits DVD and re-assess.

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