In these revisionist times, it has been getting far too customary to read what one likes into other people's works. I suppose we've always done this to a degree, especially in the case of those deep, deep pieces that no one truly understands. But sometimes . . . most times, actually . . . a work is so honest and direct in its intentions that it takes an act of will to see it as something other than what it is.
Take, for example, the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
Love the film. Have watched it many, many times, as well as every late-discovered piece and promo reel that ever came my way. It's a perfect film, even in its abbreviated form, chopped down from the director's original epic, and I love the way it raises a question, then devotes the rest of the movie to showing us the answer to that question.
"Holmes, let me ask you a question -- I hope I'm not being presumptuous -- be there have been women in your life?" Watson asks.
"The answer is yes," Holmes replies. "You're being presumptuous."
Sherlock Holmes can't help but torture Watson a bit, as he does throughout the movie. The time is not so far removed from the influence of Rathbone and Bruce, and Watson has, at least, advanced to a more George Costanza-like Watson to Holmes's Jerry Seinfeld. But as the title of the film suggests, Sherlock Holmes is also keeping the details of his relationship with women private.
It has always been interesting to me that Wilder and Diamond's script uses "Gabrielle Valladon" instead of Irene Adler as lead female character of the story -- Irene and Gabrielle share a certain commonality of character -- but Irene's story was Irene's story, and Gabrielle's tale actually sheds light on Sherlock Holmes's affection for Irene. It's no coincidence that Stephen Moffat borrowed Gabrielle's fate for Irene's in "A Scandal in Belgravia" on Sherlock -- with a delightful twist, of course.
Gabrielle's final, unknown secret parasol message to Sherlock is much like Bill Murray's unheard whisper to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation, as incredibly romantic in being left to the imagination as H.P. Lovecraft's elder gods are inredibly horrifying for that very same reason. When Sherlock Holmes later learns of her death from his brother, along with one last bit of evidence of her regard for him, it is a truly heartbreaking moment, and we don't need words to know what he is feeling.
Which is kind of the way Private Life reveals its answers to Watson's earlier question . . . without words. Sherlock Holmes doesn't speak of his relationships with women because he is gay, as he feigns early in the movie to spare the aged ballerina's feelings after a chance remark gives him that idea. There is a deeper current about the sort of women he truly loves . . . one that even adds meaning to his entire choice of profession, why he holds back his emotions, and what a tragic figure he might have become without Watson's companionship to hold off the dark places it takes him.
The story is one of the best Sherlock Holmes tales we shall ever see on the big screen, with a depth and heart that one doesn't find when monstrous hounds are bounding across the moor to frighten us. It's Loch Ness monster might put us in mind of the hell-hound of the Baskervilles, but we are never given over to such fancy at Holmes's side, even a more human Holmes that usual, as Private Life presents.
It is a shame when some current writer decides to almost dismissively use it as "that movie where Sherlock Holmes was gay" to add more fuel to a fire capable of burning fine on its own. Such a pronouncement takes away from the beautiful depth, silent messages, and delightful ambiguities of Wilder and Diamond's piece.
For The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is what it is . . . and as with so many of the best things in life, that may be quite different to each of us. And art should be allowed to be just that.