The power of speculative fiction – and, indeed, of many other works of fiction – rests on the simple phrase "what if…?" What if we could reach the moon? What if you could predict the course of civilization and saw its collapse? What if the Greek Myths were real?
This is of course also the foundation of much fanfic – what if the story continued, what if these people had a different relationship than shown in canon, etc.
What if someone wrote a marvelous Sherlock Holmes fanfic and got it filmed? And the principle of that fanfic would be… "what if Holmes and Watson had first met many years before the canonical beginning…and become involved in a mystery?"
Well, then, what you'd get is the absolutely magnificent movie Young Sherlock Holmes.
Opening with lovely titles in a snowy Victorian London, Young Sherlock Holmes brings us straight into the mystery by having a respectable Englishman suddenly suffer bizarre (and quite horrific) hallucinations that lead him to kill himself in desperation, and then immediately switching us to the narration of the adult Watson of the young Watson's entry to a new boarding school, at which he encounters a peculiar fellow student by the name of Sherlock Holmes.
The Holmes of this imagining is clearly a teenage boy, much less the obsessed, nigh-unapproachable man of Doyle's stories, but no less brilliant, focused, and sometimes clueless of the way the world around him works. Played to perfection by Nicholas Rowe, the young Holmes seems on his way to great things, despite his oddities – solving a mystery presented to him by other students clearly intending to humilate him, learning swordsmanship from one of the school's finest instructors, and to Watson's surprise even occasionally assisting a young Inspector Lestrade with deductions on difficult-to-solve cases.
But things take a much more serious turn when Holmes' mentor, the eccentric Professor Waxflatter, suffers his own death due to horrifying hallucinations. Holmes and his new friend Watson must discover the cause of these events and the reason for such vicious and terrifying murders of a group of apparently unrelated men… and in doing so will be putting themselves in mortal danger as well.
The key to this movie is the dynamic between the charismatic but often insufferable Holmes and Alan Cox' portrayal of the young, unsure, yet utterly inoffensive Watson. At first, Watson appears to be the bumbling and often incompetent man shown in some movie versions of the Holmes mythos, but as time goes on his hesitance lessens and he gains some confidence – and has a few moments of genuine brilliance and heroism.
Holmes, sad to say, must take a harder route to development. This version is given a love interest, the ward of Professor Waxflatter, Elizabeth Hardy – a girl with a brilliant mind of her own and perhaps an equal of Holmes in some ways, certainly more than capable of being a full companion to him in a way that few people could be. It is perhaps not too much of a spoiler to say that something terrible happens to her which will ensure that Holmes withdraws, perhaps forever, from that part of association with humanity.
The movie is very much in tune with the sensibilities of the era of Holmes, including typical prejudices against class and race, and with – like many of Holmes' actual cases – a motivation for the series of murders that lies with the damage caused by British imperialism and looting of "foreigner"'s treasures.
The soundscore is also excellent, one which I spend considerable time and energy to track down; it includes several excellent pieces, one of which – "Waxing Elizabeth" – I use when writing some of my nastiest villains, including Virigar, as a mood-setter.
Young Sherlock Holmes also is one of the first movies I recall to include something which has become quite common, if not entirely omnipresent, today: an important "tag" event taking place after the major credits. It was clearly a setup either for an actual sequel, or for a lead-in to the "real" Sherlock Holmes adventures.
Of course, I always wondered what THOSE might be like in that universe, since the dynamic of that meeting – "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive" – would be drastically different if it were the reunion of two young men who had gone through such a stunning adventure years before, and that Watson – grown up now, into his courage as a soldier and field surgeon – would be a different man than Holmes remembered in many ways.
There was not, of course, a sequel – although there have been rumors off and on recently that someone would remake the movie. In my view, that would be a mistake; Young Sherlock Holmes needs no updating, as far as I can tell, and holds up well even today. The movie even featured one of the first full-CGI interacting characters – a menacing knight made of stained glass – and I really don't see that there would be much to be gained by remaking it.
This is one of my favorite movies, and I recommend it to anyone who can swallow the simple "What-If…" that makes it possible.