Sherlock Holmes is a very good film, and this is a very spoilery blog post. If you haven’t watched Sherlock Holmes, don’t read this post. And I don’t mean “if you haven’t watched Sherlock Holmes but you intend to and don’t want to be exposed to spoilers” – if you haven’t watched Sherlock Holmes, whether because you haven’t got round to it or don’t plan to, go away. Watch the film. Then come back. If you read this post then later decide to watch the film, there’ll be no magic left in it, so to speak. Well, it’d suck, anyway.

Also, you should watch the film.

Apart from the first three minutes, during which there was a distinct feeling that we may have accidentally walked into an Indiana Jones screening rather than Sherlock Holmes, the film was, you guessed it, very very very good. Not at all what I expected form a Sherlock Holmes film – but the strangeness worked hugely in its favour.

One of the boons of setting a piece of fiction in the real world is that your audience has far more assumptions about that world for you to work with, than if you had created a fictional setting. Sherlock Holmes makes use of this in the best way – with magic.

If you plunge your audience into the city of Squigglewhump in the land of Oogaboogabong, and then introduce a terrible bad guy who’s using magic to terrify and confuse people, then they’ll probably eat it up as much as the terrified Squigglewhumpian public; it’s not exactly rare for magic to exist in fictional worlds. But if you do the same in 1890s London, your audience will be a little more sceptical.

Anyone with at least a KS3 education (whut?) knows that at that point in time, London and indeed the rest of the world was full of tricksters and conmen, who took to frightening and befuddling members of the public with magic tricks, made possible by sleight of hand and tricks of the mind. And, for the most part, although people of that time might be unimpressed by the more standard parlour tricks, they could probably be duped by more impressive displays – like, for example, returning from the dead or setting a man on fire from ten paces. Watson’s comment, as he and Holmes were walking past that seemingly inexplicable ice sculptor, epitomises this state of mind – “But Holmes, you can’t completely deny that a supernatural explanation for this is at least possible.”.

This is just gratuitous, really.

On the other hand, the audience is, as part of modern western society, thoroughly sick of evil magic tricks; and is not going to believe that 1890s London was home to a powerful evil sorcerer. There are, indeed, still plenty of tricksters who try to confuse and befuddle using magic in today’s world; but for the most part, when faced with that a modern person will not look for the message from God or symbols of Satanic black magic behind it; but for the cleverly concealed switch or transparent wire.

As such, as a member of the audience, you sit there very carefully watching the screen, looking for the drugs that have sent the girl in the white dress batty, or marvelling at how Blackwood managed to fiddle the pipes to make the water boil in Sir Thomas’ tin bath.

In this amusing little clash of thinking between the audience’s scepticism and the bewildered objects of their sympathy, Sherlock is the audience’s only hope. Although he never explicitly says it, his overall attitude gives a distinct feeling of being “Magic my arse”, which is just what the audience wants to hear. Even Watson is tentatively bowing and scraping before this supernatural horseshit – yay for Sherlock! Yay for bloody-minded determination not to believe in anything he doesn’t understand! Yay for trip-wires and trapdoors!

Of course, the writing toys with this desperate faith of the audience’s – Holmes admits, apparently without grudge, that supernatural events may indeed be occurring; not only that, but he draws a pentagram on the floor of his room and goes on a Mystic Journey, much to the audience’s chagrin. Throughout the film, I have to admit that, although I didn’t particularly want to see Sir Thomas die nor Parliament flooded with toxic gas, I really was more distressed by the prospect of Blackwood not being shown to be a fraud. Death? Destruction? That’s nothing, compared to a magician outsmarting Sherlock Holmes! The final minutes, in which Sherlock grimly explains the tactics behind every one of the preceding tricks and illusions, were immensely satisfying. Rather like the flashback section of Hustle, or suddenly realising that you know where every remaining piece of the damnable jigsaw puzzle goes.

I will point out I’m not praising the Sherlock-i-ness of the film or characters – I don’t know enough about the original stories to pass judgement. I just love the abuse of magic. Sexy sexy chemical weapons.

Oh, and I still have the music going round my head.

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