A Movie of the Detective as a Young Man
A Film Review of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) by Christopher Wostenberg
One of my hobbies – besides watching movies – is reading. And two of my favorite literary characters are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. I enjoy the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, as well as the newer ones written by a string of writers. While the original stories are well-known classics, even the contrived plots of the newer stories are entertaining, like Holmes facing off against Dracula or the Phantom of the Opera. Some of my love for these stories comes from watching Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) whenever it was on television as a child. Growing up, I don’t think I ever saw the whole movie in one sitting, but I remember it fondly. Thus, I was ecstatic when I was able to see the film in its entirety as an adult. Unlike other childhood favorites, I thought the movie held up quite well. In fact, it holds up enough to recommend it to others via this review.
As the title suggests, the film tells the story of Holmes and Watson meeting as teenagers while attending an all-boys boarding school, Brompton Academy, in London (a departure from canon as depicted in A Study in Scarlet where Holmes and Watson meet for the first time as adults). Holmes is given a love interest in the form of Elizabeth Hardy, a teenage girl who lives with her uncle at Brompton. Holmes is mentored by Professor Rathe, the fencing instructor at the school, and Rupert T. Waxflatter, a retired professor and inventor who is also Elizabeth’s uncle. The mystery revolves around questionable suicides that Holmes believes are connected. Upon investigation, it is determined that the suicides are the result of the murderer shooting the victims with a dart coated with a hallucinogenic substance in order to cover up a secret cult.
While not considered Holmesian canon as it was not written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Young Sherlock Holmes captures the feel and charm of the stories, while adding new elements to the lore. Though the movie is American, it captures Victorian-era England well, as this was a primary concern of Steven Spielberg, whose production company (Amblin Productions) produced the film. The initial screenplay was written by American writer, soon to be director, Chris Columbus with additional notes and edits provided by Sherlockian scholar John Bennet Shaw and English novelist Jeffery Archer. It was directed by up and coming American director Barry Levinson. To get the English feel, English actors were brought in for the various roles, except for Sherlock Holmes who was played by a Scottish actor. The filming was done at various locations within England, notably Eton College and Penhurst Place for the exterior and interior of the fictional Brompton Academy, respectively. Outside of the school, much of the action takes place at night during late autumn providing for the chilly atmosphere often associated with England and invoked throughout Sherlock Holmes stories and interpretations.
The film makes enough nods to the Holmes stories to add charm without overdoing it. It includes the minor character of Inspector Lestrade, the fourth most remembered character from Holmes’ stories after Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty. Much like in the stories, Lestrade is portrayed as a semi-intelligent Scotland Yard inspector that is doubtful of Holmes’ theories at first. Wisely, the film does not try to include other minor characters like Mycroft, Holmes’ older brother, Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’ landlady, or the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of street kids that aid Holmes, as this would crowd the movie and be confusing to the casual viewer who would not understand these references. These characters might have been added in later films if the film had done well at the box office. Also, the film in a few minor scenes shows where Holmes gets some of his famous accoutrements, i.e. his pipe, deerstalker cap, and cloak. The last scene with Sherlock Holmes in the movie shows him dressed in his famous attire to highlight that he has fully developed into the young detective. Finally, there is a treat in a post-credit scene that I will not spoil in this review, but it makes a nod to the stories as well. Overall, the movie pays homage to the Holmes’ stories while building its own unique universe.
Setting the film during Holmes’ teenage years seems a smart choice as it makes his character flaws more relatable. Awkwardness is a common trope in films revolving around adolescence and high schools, and much like in the stories, the film depicts Holmes as being more intelligent than his peers in many academic fields but lacking in social understanding. Holmes is praised one moment by his peers for solving a mystery posed by a rival classmate only to be expelled the next due the rival framing him for cheating. So for all his strengths, Holmes cannot understand how to navigate the social environment of the school completely and thus outcast from the norms of society. Well the opposite is true of Watson, who is the go between Holmes’ world and the rest of society. In the stories this is true as well, as Holmes is an expert in the criminal mind, but not politics, a very social construct, and relies on Watson in this area.
One of the more important deviations from the Doyle stories is the addition of a love interest for Holmes. At first this seems contrived, put in just to increase the appeal to the mass moviegoer. In canon, Holmes is known to have an aversion to women. In contrast, Watson is more of a ladies’ man. Unlike Holmes, Watson eventually marries in the course of the Doyle stories. So, it would make sense for the film to introduce a love interest for Watson instead of Holmes. Also, the major setting of the film is an all-boys academy, so having a young lady around seems unlikely. The plot works around this by making her into the niece of a retired professor who is taking care of her. Upon closer viewing, the love story adds depth to the Holmes character much like some of the other minor touches mentioned. It helps to explain why Holmes later becomes coldhearted, especially toward women. He is deeply affected by his time at Brompton, which includes what appears to be his first and only romantic love interest. In the end, much like the accoutrements, the romance is used to develop the traits of Holmes that were originally depicted in the stories and help to explain them.
Favorite Scene: All of the hallucination scenes are memorable, and I could talk about any of them. At first, I thought this favorite scene slot would go to the hallucinations of the main characters in the cemetery, which I still remember from childhood. After thinking about it, I decided to go with the stained glass knight hallucination scene for its technical feat. The scene involves the murder of Reverend Duncan Nesbitt, who is the second victim. In the film, Nesbitt envisions a knight from a stained-glass window coming alive and attacking him. He is frightened so much by the phantasm, that he runs out into the street and is run over by a horse-drawn carriage. What is amazing about the scene is that the knight is documented as the first fully computer-generated, photorealistic animated character. Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic and John Lasseter of Pixar fame help to render the creation. To put things in perspective, this film was released a year before Pixar started with the short Luxo Jr. (1986) and ten years before Toy Story (1995) came out. Additionally, the knight is the first computer animated character to be scanned and laser painted directly onto film. The character is so awesome looking with its two-dimensional look against the three-dimensional setting of the gothic church that you believe, much like the reverend, that it is real. The rest of the hallucinations are done through more traditional – for the time – stop-motion animation with clay, making this computer-generated scene stand out more.
No matter how much of a Holmesphile (lover of Sherlock Holmes) you are, Young Sherlock Holmes is worth watching for the fun, mystery adventure aspect as well as the Victorian England ambiance. It is a good family film with older children (pre-teens and teenagers) that everyone can enjoy, especially if you are looking for something similar in tone and feel as the first two Harry Potter movies as Chris Columbus, the director of them, is the writer for this film. I wish the movie had done better so there might have been sequels to expand on Sherlock Holmes’ early life and career, but instead we are left with this one gem. And to end this review, here is a quote from another Sherlock Holmes movie, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), uttered by Robert Stephens as Holmes, “Some of us are cursed with memories like flypaper. Stuck there is a staggering amount of miscellaneous data, most of it useless.”