As J. K. Rowling, due to her heretical views, continues to fall out of favour among The Powers That Be, fans of her work are increasingly encouraged, with more or less subtlety, to abandon Harry Potter and its fictional universe. Some argue that enjoying popular book and film series is simply too childish and immature for today’s 30-somethings, some discovers strands of anti-Semitism in portrayal of certain characters, while some argue that Harry Potter is nothing particularly new or original. The last argument does appear to have some merit, because, there used to be Harry Potter than before Harry Potter. That was Young Sherlock Holmes, 1985 period adventure mystery film directed by Barry Levinson.
As the title suggests, film deals with world’s best known fictional detective. Script by Chris Columbus, however, isn’t directly based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and, instead, speculates whether Sherlock Holmes has met his friend and sidekick John Watson during their adolescent days. The plot, narrated by elderly Watson (voiced by Michael Hordern), is set in December 1870 and begins when young John Watson (played by Alan Cox) arrives to London in order to attend Brompton Academy. He meets and quickly befriends Sherlock Holmes (played by Nicholas Rowe), its most brilliant student whose intellectual abilities are matched only by the love he feels towards Elisabeth Hardy (played by Sophie Ward), niece of eccentric Professor Waxflatter (played by Nigel Stock). Sherlock becomes preoccupied with strange and unexplained deaths of few old gentlemen, and when one of them happens to be Waxflatter, Holmes concludes that they are connected and actually caused by hallucinogenic darts shot from blow pipe. Detective Sergeant Lestrade (played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths) of Scotland Yard disregards Holmes’ findings and forces Holmes to investigate the matter himself with the help of Watson and Elisabeth. Trio gradually discovers that the case revolves around decades old revenge and ancient Egyptian cult which has built huge underground pyramid in London.
Young Sherlock Holmes was produced by Steven Spielberg at the height of his power and this is source of both the film’s strengths and weaknesses. Most powerful Hollywood producer provided film with large budget, which reflects itself in meticulous and quite impressive reconstruction of Victorian London, as well as bombastic and quite effective musical score by Bruce Broughton. On the other hand, large budget, like in many such projects, was also used to showcase new technological abilities of American film industry, namely in the area of special effects, and that often happens at the expense of the story. This includes motive of Waxflatter’s flying machine, which will be used by protagonists near the end, but more notably in use of hallucinogenic drugs as spectacular but actually not that sensible or effective method of execution. Victims of darts experience all kinds of bizarre hallucinations that allow Spielberg’s and his old associates from Industrial Light and Magic to bring all kinds of objects to life and one particular scene – in which image from church glass window comes to life – features first instance of an actual character being brought on screen via CGI. The scene, which took four months to make, is actually brief and doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film.
The cast, on the other hand, is quite good. Young Nicholas Rowe with his domineering height looks more than convincing as the young version of the world’s most iconic detective, while Alex Cox (son of famous Scottish actor Brian Cox) is also very good as his best friend and sidekick. Columbus’ script, despite non-canonical premise, tries to be as faithful to the spirit of Doyle’s work and there are a lot of subtle or not so subtle hints about Holmes’ and Watson’s adventures in the future. Young Sherlock Holmes in many ways works as what is today known as the origin story. Holmes is portrayed as recognisable character to those in Doyle’s stories, yet very different. Most notable difference is presence of emotions, which includes actual love interest. Since Holmes will spend adult years as bachelor, it isn’t that surprising that his love story in this film ends unhappily. That somewhat dark ending seems quite uncharacteristic for otherwise optimistic and cheerful Spielbergian film, especially the one that had such a large budget. The ending is even more surprising considering truly spectacular finale, which looks like it was more inspired by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom than the works of Doyle. Young Sherlock Holmes also features detail that makes it decades ahead of its time – brief post-credit sequence that hints at a possible sequel.
The sequel, however, never materialised. Young Sherlock Holmes flopped at the box office, most likely due to market being saturated with other Spielberg’s hits. This was a good thing for future fans of Harry Potter, because the success of this film would have make novels by J. K. Rowling and its future film adaptations impossible. There are many similarities between this film and Rowling’s novels like, for example, trio of adolescent protagonists – two male, one female - investigating conspiracy involving public school. Young Sherlock Holmes even features character of arrogant student and protagonist’s rival which actually looks a lot like Draco Malfoy. Even many visual details of this film – like the Grand Hall – look like they came from Rowling’s work, so it could be assumed that the author could have been easily inspired, either consciously or unconsciously, while creating her iconic characters and setting. On the other hand, she was talented enough to bring more originality and develop something that was less fan fiction and more original story. Harry Potter looks more like bespectacled sidekick Watson than dashing protagonist Holmes in the story, while Hermione Granger is smart and capable protagonist rather than damsel in distress like Elisabeth. In the end, all the discussions about eventual plagiarism was made moot when Chris Columbus became director of first two film adaptations of Rowling’s novels. Unlike Young Sherlock Holmes, those films were successful, allowing Harry Potter to become part of early 21st Century cultural legacy.
RATING: 6/10 (++)
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