Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Holmesexual Subtext

The Mrs and I went to Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows a couple of days ago. It wasn't terrible but I don't think it had quite the same energy as the first film in this series. There was a long portion in the middle of the flick where I wanted to leave but I'm glad I hung in there because the ending was good. It's intriguing watching a new Sherlock Holmes movie at the same time as the BBC series Sherlock is running on the telly, because you can appreciate how certain ideas in the Zeitgeist have influenced two completely different teams of screenwriters on opposite sides of the Atlantic. In the original stories for example women have almost nothing to do but faint, however in both Guy Ritchie's films and the BBC series the women are somewhat more interesting and have a wee bit more to do. The drug angle is fascinating too, Robert Downey Jnr plays Holmes as a jittery coke fiend (perhaps channeling his own life in the 80's) whereas in the BBC series the dreaded drug of choice is tobacco (I'd love to see Michel Houellebecq's sarcastic commentary on that).
Both teams of screenwriters are agreed that the gay subtext in the partnership between Holmes and Watson is ripe for humour. Purists should note that there has always been a bit of a gay subtext in the Sherlock Holmes stories. London in the 1890's was full of rent boys and readers of the Strand Magazine (where the Holmes stories first appeared) can't possibly have been the stuffy Victorian prudes we think of today. In the Guy Ritchie film Holmes drags up, tries to stop Watson's wedding, gets him in a clinch on the floor of a train and to cap it all his brother Mycroft is wonderfully played by an out and proud (in the film and real life) Stephen Fry. The BBC's treatment of the subtext is subtler and a bit funnier. Holmes is a pale, tall, handsome, aesthete and when Watson goes to live with him everyone assumes that they are a gay couple. Benedict Cumberbatch's aloof, diffident Holmes couldn't care less but Watson is continually trying to explain to people that they aren't a couple in the best Seinfeld tradition of "not that there's anything wrong with that." Martin Freeman is such a great comic actor that his discomfort cracks me up every time. 
Interestingly I was at the gym yesterday and ABC1 were showing an old Sherlock Holmes episode from the late 1980's series. I only saw about twenty minutes of it but it looked like a good "closed room" mystery. A translator for the Foreign Office gets an important treaty stolen from his office and has a nervous breakdown as a result. I'm pretty sure the villain is the guy who played Blake from Blake's 7 but I missed the last two thirds of the episode and didn't see how he actually did it. Of course in the 1980's series there is no (or very little) gay subtext at all.