Written by Chris Columbus and Arthur Conan Doyle
Directed by Barry Levinson
A mysterious caped figure prowls the streets of London. Locating its target, the figure raises a tube to its mouth. The target feels something akin to a bug bite and promptly forgets about it. A short time later, hallucinations begin, and the man jumps to his untimely death…..
This is the beginning of Young Sherlock Holmes. Written by Chris Columbus in his pre-Harry Potter days, directed by Barry Levinson, and produced by Steven Speilberg and Kathleen Kennedy, this movie had the blockbuster promise written all over it when it was released in December of 1985. The movie was received in its time with mixed reviews by critics. However, even these many years later it is still fun to watch.
Narrated by the boy who would grow up to be Watson, the friend and “side-kick” to the famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, this story attempts to answer some of the questions readers had about their favorite detective, not discussed in the novels, such as why he was alone, where the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson..” came from, why he wore that hat, and why he smokes that pipe.
Young Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) is attending school where Watson (Alan Cox) arrives as a new student. Also at the school is the lovely Elizabeth (Sophie Ward) with whom Holmes is in love. She lives with her uncle, Waxflatter (Nigel Stock) who is a retired schoolmaster. He keeps trying new inventions, his latest being a flying machine which doesn’t quite work the way it’s supposed to.
When a series of what appears to be unfortunate accidents seems to plague the citizens of London, Holmes thinks they are linked together. The insufferable Inspector Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) thinks it’s all in the imagination of a teenager looking for attention and dismisses Holmes’ arguments. This leaves the young man to investigate it himself with the help of this two friends. Just as he seems to be making some headway with the case, he is expelled from the boarding school after being set-up by a jealous rival.
What makes this film good is the intelligent writing. Instead of pandering to the audience, Columbus tries to keep the writing on the level expected from the novels originally written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He does a fine job with this until the end, when there seems to have been a need to insert a series of chases and fights. The fight scenes are not the most convincing, and the choreography of these could have been much better.
The special effects are used sparingly, but are good and really add to the film when they are used, mostly to illustrate the effects of the hallucinogenic drugs which causes the apparent suicides. There are some terrific scenes of a wall decoration morphing into a series of pewter-like snakes, as well as a knight depicted in a stained glass window coming to life.
The acting is pretty good from the young actors. Rowe is very believable as the intelligent and subdued Holmes. His quiet manner and introspection makes him believable as a young man who has keen powers of observation to deduce what is happening when it isn’t apparent to those around him. Alan Cox looks like he’d be right at home at Hogwart’s, and here does a fine job as the somewhat stuffy and nervous Watson. Sophie Ward has little to do but look beautiful, and she does that just fine. Anthony Higgins delivers a terrific performance in his role as the headmaster of the school who seems to have a great appreciation for Holmes’ talent in the beginning, then does a complete about-face later on. It’s apparent that there’s more to him than meets the eye, and Higgins does a good job making both faces believable.
Although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not write about the very youthful years of Sherlock Holmes and did establish the initial meeting between Holmes and Dr. Watson as adults, this affectionate speculation about what might have happened has been made with respectful admiration in tribute to the author and his enduring works.
The video transfer seems pretty good for a movie from the 80’s. The tones may be a bit off – some of the colors bleed a bit or aren’t as sharp as they should be, but not bad. A few of the outdoor scenes were a bit grainy, as well as a scene in the Egyptian tavern, and some of the distance shots are a bit blurry, but I didn’t see any distortions in the picture. Some of the scenes in dim light such as candlelight seemed not to have good fleshtones as well. The scenes with the effects transferred very well, however.
This film is rated PG-13 and I can see where some parents might have a problem with certain bits of violence, although it does seem to pale in comparison to some of the PG-13 movies of today. My 8 year old watched it with me and liked it a lot and had no nightmares over the scenes. I wish the ending had been a bit more in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film, but all in all this was a fun movie to watch all over again!