This version of Sherlock Holmes is apparently the 223rd occasion the ubiquitous detective has been portrayed on either the big or small screen, but as far as I'm aware this is the first time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary character has been a traditional Hollywood action hero. A succession of actors - from Basil Rathbone to Peter Cushing and Jeremy Brett - have portrayed Holmes as a thoughtful, cultured, albeit rather eccentric English gentleman, and although Doyle's novels have often spoken of his prowess as a bare knuckle fighter and swordsman, as well as his drug use, Holmes was never an `action man' in the traditional sense. It seems the filmmakers have made a rather unfortunate misjudgment of character on this film, making this Holmes a young, bare-chested hunk rather than an analytical mind.
The film is directed by Guy Ritchie, the former husband of Madonna and the director of such popular hits as Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and stars Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Holmes' faithful assistant and confidante, Watson. The plot revolves around the dastardly Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), an occult-worshipping aristocrat who, following a series of brutal murders, is captured, tried and subsequently executed, but seemingly rises from the dead to continue his reign of terror. The film also stars Rachel McAdams as Holmes's American paramour Irene Adler, Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, and Geraldine James, Kelly Reilly, Hans Matheson, James Fox and William Hope in smaller roles. For the film's music, Ritchie turned to composer Hans Zimmer, who began his career in London with the late great Stanley Myers, and as such has an affinity for the city and its cultural heritage.
Zimmer's score is not what you would expect from a major Hollywood studio's key Christmas lynchpin film. The composer describes it as `the Pogues in Romania by way of an East End pub', and rather than being performed by a standard symphony orchestra, is instead a cultural mishmash of gypsy fiddles, banjos, cimbaloms and an out-of-tune piano, which Zimmer said was intended to illustrate both the "chaos in Holmes's head", as well as the film's period setting at the turn of the industrial revolution. Zimmer was also apparently inspired by the folk sounds of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, which explores Victorian London's criminal underbelly in much the same way as Holmes does. Taking into account the obvious thought put into the creation of a unique sound, the resulting score is surprisingly easy to listen to and enjoy on its own terms, mainly because of its unashamed and unrestrained strangeness, and because it sounds so unlike most of Zimmer's most recent work.
The first thing listeners will find upon listening to the Holmes score is how much like the Jack Sparrow music from Pirates of the Caribbean it sounds. Like Sparrow's music, Zimmer's Holmes theme portrays the character as a comedic eccentric, but whose peculiar outward demeanor hides an inner strength. The spiky, slightly-drunken theme for fiddles, cimbaloms and accordions dances above a thrusting rhythm in the opening "Discombobulate", an energetic opening that certainly sets the tone of the score, and reoccurs later in the slightly more conventional "My Mind Rebels At Stagnation", the action-packed "Marital Sabotage" the stirring "Panic, Shear Bloody Panic", and the conclusive (and rather peculiar) "Catatonie". What's interesting about this theme, and about much of the score in general, is how off-kilter is all sounds. Instead of a smooth, constant sound, the strings have a scratchy, scrappy coarseness to them, while the accordions, banjos and various percussion items have a slightly broken sound, as though their pitch is a little off, or as if they are not being played properly. This is clearly not the case of course - scores such as this are intended to sound exactly the way they sound - but the cumulative effect of this is to make the score sound more than a little rough around the edges.
The tinkling cimbaloms are used in a more sinister manner in cues such as "Is It Poison, Nanny?", which have an unusual, scratchy electronic sound design element under the solo instruments, and which combine with deep bass chords to present a sense of impending menace. The second half of "My Mind Rebels At Stagnation", as well as cues such as "He's Killed The Dog Again", are similarly threatening, with an increased brass presence, dark electronic chords, buzzing violins, and multiple appearances of the famous de-tuned piano, which Zimmer personally detuned by throwing it down a set of stairs in the parking structure on the 20th Century Fox lot. At the other end of the scale, "I Never Woke Up In Handcuffs Before" is a crazy Romani-style dance for fiddles, accordion and an oompah tuba that picks up an exotic percussion beat half way through, and ends as a frenzied whirligig dance piece that would not sound of out place in a Turkish bazaar.
The main set piece of the score is the 18-minute "Psychological Recovery... 6 Months", into which Zimmer combines all the specific acoustic and electronic elements, the prancing Holmes theme, the banjos and fiddles and cimbaloms, and the cranky piano, but beefs up much of the music with some of the engaging action rhythms for which Zimmer is much more famous. He even finds time to work Irish pipes into his sound mix, which briefly recalls the work Zimmer did no An Everlasting Piece back in 2000. One absolutely wonderful touch comes 8 and a half minutes into the cue, when Zimmer works the Westminster Chimes melody (which precedes the hourly chimes of the clock of Big Ben) into his robust string ostinato. It's all very entertaining, and builds up to a thoroughly rousing, orchestrally-enhanced, and unexpectedly emotional conclusion as Holmes and his nemesis fight atop the still-under-construction Tower Bridge.
While Guy Ritchie's reworking of Sherlock Holmes might dismay the literary purists, and while Zimmer's score will likely make younger Zimmer fans scratch their heads in confusion, I personally found the score a refreshing change of pace, and a new sound from a man not known for breaking with convention that often. It took me a while to warm up to the score and to appreciate its nuances, but once you get past the initial reaction of "what the hell...?", there is a great deal of engaging music to be found. This is the kind of Zimmer music I like the most; the music that reminds us why he, above all his `underlings', is capable of writing genuinely good music, and why he continues to be held in such esteem.