The main thing I knew about this film was what it does to Moriarty. There's no Napoleon of Crime at all, but instead a cocaine-addled Holmes is persecuting an innocent man. I wasn't keen on this idea, to put it mildly, but fortunately it's not treated as a dramatic revelation. Instead it's a premise.
The film begins with an adaptation of the beginning of The Final Problem, except that they've taken Conan Doyle's dialogue and given it to a clearly mad Holmes and a patently innocent little old walnut of a Moriarty. Amusingly this counter-reading works. Moriarty's complaints about being persecuted are now justified. He's Holmes's old school teacher! As the starting point for a story, I rather liked this. The Great Detective is in such a desperate physical and mental state that his life expectancy can be measured in months if he doesn't soon throw off his addiction, so Mycroft and Watson hatch a scheme to get him to Vienna and the consulting rooms of Dr Sigmund Freud.
This feels almost like a spoof, but oddly enough it's nothing of the kind. Nicholas Meyer's script (adapted from his own novel) is playing it completely straight. The film's full of respectful references to the Sherlockian canon and it soon becomes clear that its Holmes really is a genius and the greatest detective in Europe. He's the real thing. It's not a spoof, a pisstake or an alternate universe. Despite first appearances, this is merely an elaboration on character traits that already existed in Conan Doyle's Holmes. It's merely supposing that there are some holes in the version we thought we knew, with Holmes at the end telling Watson to explain it all away with a fabricated story that would presumably become The Final Problem. "Tell them I was murdered by his mathematics tutor."
I like the preface, by the way. This story takes place in 1893, when Holmes had been missing for three years. I'm not sure offhand whether this is a reference to Holmes's fictional disappearance or to Conan Doyle's attempt to kill off his creation, but I admire its cheek.
In fact, Meyer's fidelity to canon is for me the film's problem. I think its first half works better than the remainder. A lot of this film is startling, with a heavily revisionist Holmes locking horns both with inconvenient reality and with Sigmund Freud. He's a formidable logician, but he's also a fruitcake. I had no idea at all where this was going and it was rather exciting.
Unfortunately where it's going is "business as usual". To borrow the terminology of Doctor Who fandom, this is rad followed by trad. Meyer's screenplay may have been Oscar-nominated, but I don't think it's even good trad. The Holmes-Freud relationship is always fun, but the problem is that the mystery they're trying to solve is second-rate. A Baron wants to kidnap his own girlfriend, which could have been intriguing if the film had given them more screen time. Vanessa Redgrave does quite well as a victim, but then disappears from the film, while Jeremy Kemp's Baron von Leinsdorf's one and only good scene is a tennis match. He'd be a more memorable villain in the Jeremy Brett adaptation of The Speckled Band. Eventually the film descends into adventure serial cliches, with a steam train chase and a sword fight that begins with Holmes holding a gun on von Leinsdorf. It's okay, but no more. The music doesn't help either.
That's not the end of the story, but the rest is merely better, not good. Holmes lets Freud hypnotise him and go back to the key event in his childhood which caused all his psychological problems, but unfortunately it's all a bit anticlimatic. It's the kind of banal "explanation" I'd been hoping not to get, really. Admittedly it's the obvious resolution to a Holmes-Freud crossover adventure, but I'd still been hoping for something a bit more original after all that good stuff at the beginning. After that there's a scene with Holmes saying goodbye to Watson as he goes off for a few years to get over his problems. The end.
It sounds as if all this was juicier in the novel. The film's simplified things and thus removed Holmes's father's suicide from the backstory and the fact that von Leinsdorf is about to launch a war involving all of Europe. Both of those would have added weight to the second half that I think it needed. Well, maybe I missed something.
There are some big names among the cast, such as Vanessa Redgrave and Laurence Olivier (!), but I'm not wild about the central duo: Nicol Williamson's Holmes and Robert Duvall's Watson. Williamson is clearly a fine actor who's giving it everything, but he's decided that superintelligence means speaking too fast. He does the job, but I can't imagine him being anyone's favourite. Duvall though is awful. He looks the part and is the right kind of stolid Victorian-era action man, but he sounds like a twonk. What the hell is that accent? At times he comes across as a Restoration fop. Admittedly Williamson's hardly naturalistic either, but really.
Alan Arkin is great as Freud, though. Meyer seems to hero-worship the guy, painting him as Holmes's equal in his own intellectual sphere. His hero status becomes most obvious in the tennis match duel, which at the time I found just bizarre. (With hindsight, the scene becomes more explicable as our introduction to Baron von Leinsdorf.) Freud's often regarded as something of a joke these days, but this film shows us a lot about the man that's worthy of respect. I also noticed all those references to his Jewishness, Mr Meyer. The only oddity is that he's shown as having a son rather than a daughter, since Dr Anna Freud was still alive and promised to sue if they put her in the film.
Charles Gray plays Mycroft, as he would again opposite Jeremy Brett, and he's much the same as he would be then. Lots of hair and a bit nondescript until he suddenly starts turning the screws on Moriarty. I liked his purring "now". It's a tiny role, though.
I was also impressed by the way they made a snake look sinister in Holmes's hallucination sequences. Snakes in movies are rubbish. It's like a law of nature. You normally have to be phobic not to laugh at them.
Overall, this is a good movie that ends up running desperately away from greatness. Nicholas Meyer wrote three Sherlock Holmes novels, I think, not to mention of course some Star Trek
movies. Nevertheless I admire this film's fidelity, as in for instance this Watson limping when he runs! It's his old war wound! I'd never seen that before. There's also a song by Stephen Sondheim. I was fascinated by the first half and enjoyed a lot of the second, despite the action hero ending. It's a pretty obvious revisionist take on Sherlock Holmes, but it's still something a bit different by movie standards and with hindsight it's quite a feat that it managed not to be annoying. Well, except for Robert Duvall, obviously.