Calling all Anglophiles!
England’s longest reigning monarch takes on the cleverest subject of her (fictional) realm in this All-Union-Jack Smackdown.
Both repackaged and reimagined for the new millennium’s theatergoing audience — the usually buttoned-up Victoria gets unstuffed and sexed up in a lush period romance/political drama, and Sherlock gets the no-holds-barred no-punches-pulled Guy Ritchie/Joel Silver treatment. Both title characters make formidable contenders for the Smackdown crown; there’s nothing I appreciate more than a really good makeover.
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In This Corner
The Young Victoria works well; Emily Blunt inhabits the title role (her first) with serene confidence,
spirited intelligence and refined wit. Her Victoria is flesh and bone. You can see all the gears whirring; never has political ambition and a steep learning curve seemed so comely. As Albert, Rupert Friend makes for a dreamy match. Paul Bettany’s steamy Lord Melbourne provides an unusually balanced
romantic/political triangle, especially for those who might be planning a visit to London’s Victoria and Lord Melbourne Museum. For the rest of us, knowing how it ends doesn’t hamper the drama in the least. Victoria and Albert have a true connection, and we ache for them to close the deal. These (what’s the opposite of star-crossed?) lovers earn all their honeymoon-hottie cavorting in the
sheets and on horseback, their waltz in the rain. We watch them and try to reconcile our warehoused mental images of Old Victoria with this coltish girl.
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In That Corner
No tweedy opiate-smoking intellectual will suffice for this lucrative franchise in the making – Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes is a full-on superhero action figure, still blessed with unmatched deductive reasoning, now souped up with new and improved six-pack abs and the hand-to-hand ultimate fighting skills to go with ‘em. Ritchie’s familiar stutter-cut flash forward and backward tricks service the hero well; Holmes’ legendary mind works too fast for normal voiceover and mere dialogue.
His motor runs at warp speed, and so does Downey’s. By contrast, Jude Law’s Dr. Watson lives underwater, but like every true superhero’s second, he always manages somehow to appear at the perfect moment. The plot is duly complicated, the action sequences and effects are expensive and compelling. But it’s Downey’s franchise to win or lose. In this, his second go-round as a British
icon (recall his BAFTA winning, Academy Award nominated turn as Charlie Chaplin), Downey’s found a suitable role for all his crazy brilliance and keen intelligence, and I suspect thrillseeking audiences will demand he return home to Holmes for a sequel or two. Take that, Iron Man 2.
“The Young Victoria” is a feast for the eyes. The clothes. The locations. The positively dizzifying interiors. All historically accurate and absolutely dazzling. This is a period piece that spares no expense to thrill and treat and teach. Every frame is a painting; director Jean-Marc Vallée puts his camera exactly where it belongs. Costume dramas should thrill us aesthetically, and this one never disappoints. Luckily for us, human drama, compellingly complex political intrigue, and suspense aren’t sacrificed on the altar of gorgeosity.
Blunt’s Victoria is no addled Disney princess. A woman of substance from the start, resolutely herself, supremely self-assured, Blunt plays this worthy heroine to the hilt. The film is strongminded as well, not stooping to sugarcoat or whitewash. Victoria makes rookie mistakes, suffers serious consequences, and learns from them. A product of her time and her ultra-rareified upbringing, Victoria struggles with the constraints without offending propriety or tipping her hand. Her complicated relationships ebb and flow; politics and family intermingle in alarming and surprising ways. A sense of real and imminent danger floats above the proceedings, no small feat given that everyone knows Victoria more than survived. Unanswered questions hover, sustaining our interest and prolonging dramatic tension. Small currents of electricity charge even the most mundane moments; Mark Strong’s malevolently ambitious Sir John Conroy registers strongly as a the worthy villain. His every appearance amps up the tension and sense of danger. Miranda Richardson plays the
role of Victoria’s mother sympathetically — touching, clueless, wrongheaded, and sorely misled.
A few clumsy storytelling moments keep “Young Victoria” from achieving inarguable masterpiece status, anchoring it securely in an uber-expensive Masterpiece Theatre realm of excellence instead. Paragraphs of information and backstory get delivered hamhandedly; exposition that may be necessary to get us up to historical speed occasionally detract from the otherwise exquisite narrative flow and land us too squarely in the classroom.
(I was half expecting the ubiquitous Morgan Freeman to read all the super-titles aloud.) The very end of the movie is a too-telescoped muddle; filmmakers overshot their mission, imparting too much drama in unfortunate shorthand and rendering it dry as dust. They might have more wisely ended
earlier and provided the necessity for a fully realized sequel. (The Less Young Victoria?) But this is niggling. The achievement is huge and worthy of a look, the bigger the screen, the better.
Without my urging, audiences are packing the multiplex, responding to Sherlock Holmes’ humor and panache; new superheroes are always welcome, and well-conceived ones are rare. Holmes is more than a collection of fancy parlor tricks; he actually uses his keen powers of observation to solve every dilemma and puzzle the script throws in his path. He stays a step ahead of everyone onscreen and the audience, and Downey’s tossed-off ease makes for the coolest Holmes version ever.
Anachronisms rule in Sherlock Holmes’ Victorian London.
Rachel McAdams’ smokey-eye makeup and George Sand-style trousers defy period convention and common sense. But one suspects period accuracies are not a part of the Sherlock Holme mission statement; the under-construction Tower Bridge looms large throughout, patiently and ominously waiting its turn for a climactic action sequence that doesn’t disappoint. The opening and closing credits are stylish and moody, the art direction detailed and dark.
Mark Strong plays the villain in “Sherlock Holmes” as well; a younger and more menacing British version of Stanley Tucci. Eddie Marsan plays a creepy Inspector Lestrade, and seven foot tall Robert Maillet’s Dredger is a real live special effect, an impossibly lethal walking talking weapon. The story is overly complicated and arcane hokum; no one but Holmes could ever make sense of it all, but wrap it up in a tidy ribbon he does.
Like most superhero-and-trusty-sidekick dynamic duos, Watson and Holmes banter endlessly, arguing like an old married couple, adding a none-too-subtle homoerotic subtext to their longstanding living arrangement.
The women add no real sexual heat to the proceedings; Irene dresses like a man for half the movie, and Mary clucks and fusses more like a guardian than fiancee. No, the real love match here is clearly between the doctor and his longtime companion; the women function as elaborate beards, and the obstacles and objections they inspire raise questions that never get adequately answered.
“Sherlock Holmes” is a better theme park ride of a movie, and I can’t deny how much fun most of the audience seemed to be having. For me though, all that snarky unraveling of a puzzle constructed
just to be unraveled leaves me wanting a little more, and all the gunplay, explosions, and fisticuffs leave me wanting a little less. Maybe I’m just testosterone challenged, but I’ll take revelatory history over convoluted mystery. “The Young Victoria” wins the day. Any day.