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Bullets Over Baker Street

With Holmes and Watson on DVD, Cameron and Clegg in Downing St, can we admit that Guy Ritchie is the new Godard?

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by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: May, 2010
Is Guy Ritchie really the Godard of contemporary British cinema?
by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: May, 2010
Is Guy Ritchie really the Godard of contemporary British cinema?

You are now about to witness the strength of Baker Street knowledge . . . Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is out now on DVD, and, watching the film a second time, I'm struck by its reinterpretation of the Sherlock-stock-and-two-pipesmoking-bachelors mise-en-scene that usually gets attached to Conan Doyle's (r)evolving characters.

The now default setting for cinematic tales of late-Victorian London splices opium-tinged visions of a fog-filled urban labyrinth with steampunk set dressing. Rather than resisting this option, Ritchie astutely upgrades it into his own gangster operating system. In so doing, he retains the ambient connection between Conan Doyle's creation and other fast-breeding fictions that emerged in the final years of the nineteenth century, those cross-culturally transplanted works of Gothic literature that feature a league of extraordinary schizoid gentleman successively hammered into generic templates: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray, Dracula. We've seen Ritchie deal with these kinds of psychic splits before, most memorably when Jason Statham's Mr Green gets stuck in a 13th floor elevator in the numerologically-charged Revolver and engages in a suitably Kabbalistic psychomachia with his more satanically coiffured self. 

As in Conan Doyle's original stories, and as in the UK's newly formed coalition government, the narrative of Sherlock Holmes downplays any Brit-pop psychology version of the divided self in order to pursue a conspiratorial plot interpenetrated by various hierarchies of villains. Such action-and-object-oriented storytelling provides Ritchie with familiar plotlines to reconfigure in his own recognizable manner, or, more tellingly, his own manor, enabling him to retain his rickety status as one of British cinema's extant auteurs.

Ritchie's take on the Sherlock Holmes industry rekindled a vaguely psychogeographical project I had initiated in the mid-1990s. After watching Bullets Over Broadway on a rainy afternoon in New York I planned to try and watch more films in cinemas located approximately where the films themselves were set. After seeking out screenings of early Godard during annual trips to Paris, and after staring at the subliminally psychotic Notting Hill in situ, the concept idled (never more so than when watching a London-set Woody Allen film). However, at the start of the year, with Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes actually playing on Baker Street, and with the likelihood of seeing Tim Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland shortly afterwards in an Oxford multiplex a few yards down the road from Lewis Carroll's honeyed Christ Church, the project temporarily looked less banal. Duly motivated, on a cold January night in snow-flecked London I went to the Everyman on Baker Street where a sign advertised that 'Sherlocks Home'. Early suspicions that the audience would consist of a sea of deerstalkers proved unfounded. No tweed, no pipes, no fanboys. As the opening titles safely established Ritchie's auteur credentials, I watched with an increasing sense of relief and varying levels of enjoyment as a bohemian Robert Downey Jr and a bemused Jude Law reanimated the well-worn roles of Holmes and Watson.

Leaving the Baker Street cinema, I pondered again the bewildering possibility that Ritchie was the Jean-Luc Godard of contemporary British cinema. A mutant thought that generated the additional question: does that make Statham our Jean-Paul Belmondo? Now, after a second viewing, a better analogy might reclassify Jude Law as the new Eddie Constantine. As for commenting on Mark Strong as the evil Lord Blackwood, I want to wait until I've seen him as another bad boy in Ridley Scott's latest adventure. Meanwhile, for any merry 'cinematopographers' eager to join an abandoned project, Robin Hood is currently showing at the Savoy in Nottingham.

Henderson Downing

Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London

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