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Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times Knight at the Movies: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-12-14

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Robert Downey, Jr. in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Photo by Daniel Smith


The homoerotic bantering between Robert Downey, Jr. (as master sleuth Sherlock Holmes) and Jude Law (as sidekick Dr. Watson) in director Guy Ritchie's reinvigoration of the classic series in 2009 left me jonesing for a sequel.

It wasn't just because I want Holmes to come out and confess his true feelings for his best buddy but because Ritchie's attention-deficient camera tricks and sure feel for action have found their perfect avenue in the mystery adventures of the duo. If anything, the second outing, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, ratchets up all of these elements: There are more of those camera flourishes, more of those elaborate action set pieces and plenty more homoerotic double entendres between our two male leads.

Also, did I mention a fun new edition to the series: "Sherley's" gay older brother?

That would be Mycroft (played by out actor Stephen Fry), a dead ringer for Oscar Wilde who dubs baby brother with this affectionate moniker. In Ritchie's movie, he is never seen without his handsome assistant; has a rather disconcerting habit of strutting around his home in the nude; and holds some sort of important position within the British government (though it's never quite clear what that is).

However, Mycroft is a sidebar to the main action: the arrival of Holmes' intellectual nemesis, the diabolical Professor Moriarty (played with droll expertise by Mad Men's Jared Harris). Only Holmes and Watson, it seems, have any idea that the clever Morey is such a bad egg and the two—in league with a wild gypsy fortune-teller (the original Dragon Tattoo girl, Swedish actress Noomi Rapace) whose brother has fallen under the spell of the evil professor—have their work cut out for them trying to prevent Moriarty from starting World War I.

The political assassinations, crosses and double-crosses (all set up rather nicely in a long prologue that briefly brings back Rachel McAdams) are simply an excuse for lots of eye-popping spectacle set to Hans Zimmer's jangly music as our dynamic Victorian duo skitters about trains; single-handedly destroys a gentlemen's sporting club; throws down with the archvillains' henchmen (the movie's chock full of chop-socky); travels from London to Paris; and, best, engages in a lot of the aforesaid homoerotic banter.

The gay subtext reaches its peak during a thrilling action sequence set aboard a speeding train upon which Watson and his new bride are heading toward their long-delayed honeymoon. Holmes, dressed in lady drag, quickly dispenses with the wife (for her own safety, he later protests) and—with Watson to himself—comments ruefully, "Apparently, our relationship, er, partnership is over." Apprised of the dangerous Moriarty, however, Watson agrees to come back one more time. None too soon and moments later, Holmes (with the game afoot and the bullets flying) is shown lying on the floor of the train, where he commands, "Lie down with me." Downey, obviously aware of his character's true proclivities, gives us a sly smile when Watson obeys.

However, then the whole movie, chock full of this queer undertone, is one long sly smile—and deliciously so. In that regard, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (and how's that for a loaded title?) is like one of those '40s mysteries—Rebecca or Laura, say—in which the homosexual subtext completely pervades the movie. Gay audiences will immediately pick up the innuendos but what about their straight counterparts, who are certainly much more wiser than moviegoers of yore? Even without all the verbal and visual double entendres or lack of female romance for Holmes, that seems pretty likely.

I suspect that straight audiences won't mind. The movie's so visually dazzling and such big, big fun. It could be that with the next sequel, Sherlock Holmes might finally just come out of the closet. How ironic would it be that mainstream audiences would accept this more easily from a fictional action hero (albeit a really, really smart one) than they would the idea of an openly gay actor playing one of these buff men of steel?

Political mystery author John LeCarre's 1974 novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—about a Soviet agent hiding within British intelligence—has been filmed previously. This was a six-hour miniseries BBC television adaptation that, even at that length, had a hard time keeping viewers up to speed on all the plot twists and turns and spy agency jargon. So what chance do audiences have from falling behind with director Tomas Alfredson's new version, which clocks in at slightly more than two hours?

The answers is "not much." Ostensibly, the plot's simple enough: Gary Oldman, as the retired George Smiley, is called back into service by his superiors in order to uncover the traitor. However, very quickly the movie becomes a literal double-whammy—it's both densely plotted and edited with the assumption that fickle, easily distracted audiences will keep up and not lag behind. And woe be to the moviegoer who answers the call of nature; even a short break, I suspect, will lead to immediate and prolonged head-scratching upon returning to the theatre.

This is not to say that this talky movie (billed as an espionage thriller) doesn't have its merits. It's filled with a tremendous cast led by a quietly effective Oldman (who looks like an aging Robert Mitchum in repose); there are also Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke, et al, as well as Benedict Cumberbatch (don't you love that name?) as Oldman's assistant in the investigation who—I think—might have been hiding the fact that he was gay. (I blinked, so I missed it.) The movie also perfectly captures the look and feel of the period it covers and it has a great musical score by Alberto Iglesias.

Ultimately, though, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a movie for those who dig really tough brain-teasers, like folks who pride themselves on doing the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in ink. Heck, even the publicists for the film realized the density of their picture and handed out a cheat sheet to critics before press screenings—a nifty guide with a list of the characters, their motivations and the slang terms they use. It would be nice for the public to get one of these things, too.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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