Holiday movie review / ‘Holmes and Watson’ (M) ** and a half

“’Funny’, as every literate person understands, comes in two flavours – ha-ha and peculiar. The writer of ‘Holmes and Watson’ has striven to satisfy both, says movie reviewer DOUGAL MACDONALD.

THE movies have long had fun and profit with Arthur Conan Doyle’s eponymous heroes who were first flashed on the screen in a one-minuter in 1900, followed by short films in several languages until 1922 when Samuel Goldwyn cast John Barrymore in the first Sherlock movie to have high production values and a major star.

Connoisseurs generally consider the 14 titles starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, beginning with “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in 1939 to represent the epitome of the pair’s cinema street cred. On stage, on radio, in TV, in comic books, on the internet, in video games, Holmes and Watson have accumulated a CV that might well have brought Conan Doyle royalties enough to make him wealthier than all the squillionaires on the latest Forbes list put together.

The latest cinematic venture into this low-entry-fee gold mine is led by Israeli writer/director Etan Cohen whose 90-minute foray from the rooms at 221B Baker Street, London, purports to be a comedy. “Funny”, as every literate person understands, comes in two flavours – ha-ha and peculiar. Etan Cohen has striven to satisfy both.

Neither flavour passes the credibility test. In an interview with Charles Wheeler of the “Chicago Tribune” in 1916, Henry Ford is quoted as having said: “History is more or less bunk”. Cohen has taken that rubric as gospel. So don’t expect to find his film historically valid.

On reflection, that doesn’t really matter. Cohen has set out to create a sort of international version of French farce. Two second-level American actors (Will Ferrell as Holmes, John C. Reilly as Watson) could have done worse in their portrayals of quintessential British heroes. The story purports to have taken place over four days in 1881; the issue is a plot to assassinate the Queen (Pam Ferris). RMS Titanic is about to begin her maiden voyage (the White Star line ordered her from Harland and Wolff in 1908). Mrs Hudson (Kelly Macdonald – no relation) is a randy doxy there for carnal hi-jinks as they become available. Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes) will go free from a murder trial if Homes doesn’t appear by noon with evidence to confirm his guilt, Inspector Lestrade (Rob Brydon) is a bumbling incompetent (which is not that far from how Conan Doyle wrote him).

Cohen takes apparent joy from lampooning British customs both ancient and modern. He comes close to the censor’s displeasure time and again, particularly his use of newspaper headlines to deliver shorthand comments about all manner of bodily functions as the crux of jokes – their appearance is invariably brief so do watch for them – they’re fun.

I’m not saying that “Holmes and Watson” is a film to be avoided at all costs. But I consider it my duty to provide a brief word-picture of what to expect from it.

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