Sherlock Holmes is quite the character. According to certain statistics, he’s the most portrayed human literary character. Way back in 2012, the Guinness Book of World Records awarded him the title after it decided the sleuth had been depicted a whopping 254 times on-screen. A number that beat Hamlet by 48. All in all, the great detective has, according to the numbers, been played by over 75 different actors so, by this point we’re definitely starting to get that sense of déjà vu. Which is probably why so many TV and film executives keep trying to find new and interesting ways to reinvent the character. We’ve seen him with deerstalker, without deerstalker, with a coke habit, without a coke habit, with emotions, without emotions. He’s been played by American actors, by British actors, by Grand Moff Tarkin, and by Dr Strange. So many options. It’s amazing anyone even keeps trying when there have been so many options! But, apparently, people will never stop trying to make it new again. Something director Thom Eberhardt took to a new level in 1988 when he turned the traditional premise on its head starring two of our finest actors.
Without a Clue starts off from an idea that I reckon Arthur Conan Doyle would definitely have approved of. It’s well-known that the writer got so annoyed by his famous character that he killed him off and only brought him back thanks to the fan reaction. So, yeah, I think that Conan Doyle would have been quite happy with the idea that Sherlock Holmes wasn’t actually the brain behind the operation but was actually a cover for the real genius, Dr John Watson. According to the 1988 comedy, the man who the world thinks is Sherlock Holmes (Michael Caine) is actually a drunken actor, Reginald Kincaid, who the good doctor (Ben Kingsley) hired to take his place.
But, as we learn at the start of the story, Watson is getting tired of Kincaid’s behaviour and ever-growing ego, so he decides to strike out on his own. Unfortunately, Victorian London isn’t ready to replace the great detective with the “Crime Doctor” so he is forced to use the fake Holmes one last time to save the British Empire. When the Bank of England’s £5 note printing plate is stolen and replaced with a fake, the race is on to find the culprit before the economy is flooded with forged money. Inspector Lestrade, of Scotland Yard, is hot on the trail of the Bank’s printing supervisor who went missing on the night of the robbery but Watson isn’t falling for it. He and “Holmes” travel from London to the Lake District and back in search of the real villain. But can Kincaid stay on brand long enough for the case to get solved?
To be honest, when I added this film to my list of films to watch this year I was quite excited. Anyone who’s read my blog for a while will know that I’m a lover of Arthur Conan Doyle anyway and I enjoy fun interpretations of classic characters. Plus, you can’t really got wrong with the great British cast on offer here. Michael Caine has a lot of fun playing the two different sides to Kincaid’s character. He definitely hams it up during the drunken moments but it is a performance that doesn’t give him much room to work with. It’s a commendable and fun job but he’s been much better elsewhere. Ben Kingsley has much less chance to let loose as Watson here and ends up being a bit of a miserable affair. Watson has never been the most interesting of characters but this added twist does nothing to bring him to life.
But there is something fun about the film in general and definitely gets points for originality. The basic joke about Holmes being fed lines by his associate is an interesting idea but, if I’m honest, it isn’t really enough to drag out for a whole film. We get treated to the same joke repeated slightly differently over and over for the entire duration. Maybe if it was handled with slightly less of a stiff upper lipped attitude it could have worked but it was dealt with in a more Victorian manner and ends up falling flat. It feels like there should have been something more here to elevate the premise to film length. Instead, you end up sitting through a pretty pedestrian Holmesian case that is so clearly signposted that even Lestrade could tell you how it was going to end.
Maybe it doens’t help that I’m watching this so close to the release of the upcoming Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly Holmes and Watson, which looks like a ridiculously silly affair. Every time I see the trailer I fill with more glee about it. So, to then watch a supposedly funny adaptation of Conan Doyle’s stories that is so underwhelming makes it rather difficult to treat it fairly. After all, there are people who class this film as one of the better films about Holmes and people credit Michael Caine with being one of the better portrayals. Maybe it’s an 80s thing? Or maybe, in this post-Sherlock world, we’ve just got greater expectations for how we tackle the character? Either way, though it didn’t offend me greatly, I shan’t be rushing out to rewatch Without a Clue any time soon.