When Sherlock Holmes Was Young

Today’s guest post focuses on an underrated film from the 1980s, one that helped usher in the age of CGI with its ground-breaking special effects.

Holmes purists may quibble that Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) is an insult to the classic mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After all, Holmes and Watson certainly didn’t meet as schoolboys, as this movie implies. But let those hardcore fans quibble all they want. Young Sherlock Homes is a fanciful “What if?” movie which–though it doesn’t always succeed–might have pleased Doyle.

The gripping opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the lively mystery. A Victorian gentleman is shot with a blow dart just before entering a restaurant. When he starts to eat his favorite roasted poultry, his dinner suddenly comes to life and attacks him. As he fends off the snapping bird, we see what the other restaurant patrons see: a raving lunatic screaming and flinging his arms at the air. When the same gentleman’s coat tries to strangle him later that evening, he jumps out a two-story window to his death. Thus, the mystery is afoot.

Behind this cloak of crime is the story of teenagers Holmes and Watson, who meet when the bookish Watson transfers to a London boarding school. When Watson first encounters him, Holmes is frustrated that he has not yet mastered the violin–after all, he’s been playing it for three days. Considered egotistical by his peers and teachers, Holmes is bored until he, his girlfriend Elizabeth, and Watson become involved in murder.

Despite its intriguing opening, the mystery falters halfway through the film. The lack of viable suspects makes the villain obvious. And Holmes doesn’t even have to use his famous deductive reasoning to solve the puzzle. One of the would-be victims tells him all the details. There are also a few too many special effects and a Steven Spielberg-inspired flying sequence (he was an executive producer).

The fact that the movie still entertains is a tribute to director Barry Levinson and his fine young cast. Levinson (The Natural) has lovingly created an atmospheric, snowy Victorian London. Filled with fleeting shadows and eccentric characters, the film unfolds like an amber-tinted postcard from the past. It’s rare when a film can be enjoyed for its sheer visual elegance.

As Holmes, Nicholas Rowe delivers a crisp, slightly aloof performance that is perfectly balanced by Alan Cox’s charming, awkward Watson. There is a strong rapport between the two that keeps the movie moving even when the plot is not.

Screenwriter Chris Columbus has fun explaining the origins of such famous Holmesian objects as the deerstalker cap, the briar pipe, and the Inverness coat. It’s intriguing to note several similarities to the Harry Potter books which J.K. Rowling would write 12 years later. The first films, of course, were directed by Chris Columbus.

Be sure to stick around for the post-credits sequence.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café . He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!