Orson Welles once described Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective as one of a select group of mythic figures existing now and forever on the edge of the world, a character who “has never lived but who will never die.” Doyle’s collected writings chronicling the adventures of Sherlock Holmes—4 novels and 56 stories referred to as “the holy canon” by Holmes’s enthusiasts—constitutes one of the most enduring bodies of work in popular literature. Holmes pursuit of the “scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life” has made him immortal, and one of the finest things one could say about Young Sherlock Holmes is that it endeavors to honor that legend.
There is something about Holmes’s elegant, haunting, and whisperingly melancholic distance, his analytical remove from the world, that inspires a desire for glimpses of the baroque corridors of labyrinthine interiors. Holmes’s heart was never much within the purview of Doyle’s pen; one comes to think that the author considered his creation as possessing little of those kinds of complexities. It was Watson’s function to interject a certain element of romance into what the detective considered intellectual exercises, and thereby provide the reader with those delicate observations of the “higher functionings” of the human heart; Holmes saw only an endless series of interconnected Rube Goldberg devices, a collision of metaphoric gears and flywheels that inevitably lead to crime.
Whatever Doyle’s intentions, it is a testament to the image of his detective that what may have been meant as little more than the portrait of a particularly interesting machine, has become far more in the minds of readers. As a work of fictional imagination, Holmes is simply fascinating, and Young Sherlock Holmes attempts to unlock the source of that fascination. The film re-imagines the first encounter between Holmes and Watson from within the dusty honeycombs of a boarding school buried deep within the folds of Victorian London. What one finds there are fascinatingly incomplete portraits; Watson is pictured as an uncertain, clumsy and yet still dogged companion while Holmes’s encyclopedic mind and relentless determination remain unbalanced by youthful passions, particularly love.
The image of Sherlock in love is an unusual one, and yet is handled with surprising restraint by screenwriter Chris Columbus and director Barry Levinson. The love story is one of adolescent dedication and first discovery. Both Nicholas Rowe as Holmes and Sophie War as Elizabeth are successful at presenting the purity of their character’s feelings for one another without ever seeming cloying or insincere. Rowe in particular makes for a quite effective young Holmes, conveying an ego driven gravity tempered by a certain boyish enthusiasm and yet presenting a figure made vulnerable by his depth of feeling. If Ward is a tad too ethereal, it is perhaps fitting considering her eventual enshrinement within Holmes’s memory as the one great love of his life.
Elizabeth is like some Edgar Allan Poe heroine, pure and radiant and destined to die. Nicholas Rowe is the aquiline embodiment of the traditional image of Holmes, and Alan Cox as Watson, based a bit too much on the kind of rounded bumbler who Nigel Bruce made popular as the foil to Basil Rathbone’s cinematic Sherlock, is still representative of the best of that character. The respect on the part of the filmmakers is indicated by the unusual bracketing of Young Sherlock Holmes with disclaimers designed to convince the viewer of the creators’ appreciation and affection for the source material. This doesn’t stop them, however, from borrowing a few pages from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in this tale of ritual murders, secret cults, and fiendish criminal masterminds.