José Luis Garci’s Sherlock Holmes is out to rescue Spain
The director of ‘Begin the Beguine’ returns. And although he insists he has nothing to say about contemporary Spain in his films, it’s hard to believe him.
By Nick Lyne
It’s now 30 years since José Luis Garci won Spain its first Oscar for Begin the Beguine. In the interim, he has made another 14 films, the latest of which, now on general release, is Holmes & Watson. Madrid Days.
That 1982 Oscar gave a much-need boost to the Spanish film industry — even though the film had been panned by the critics and was a commercial flop — and, along with hosting the World Cup and Felipe González’s election win the same year, ushered in a lengthy period of national self-confidence now in tatters after the implosion of the economy.
For Garci himself, winning an Academy Award must have been especially gratifying: this is a man for whom Hollywood, and particularly the golden age of the forties and fifties, represents the pinnacle of cinema: in the late nineties, he presented a season of Hollywood classics by directors such as Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks. Sadly, they were dubbed into Spanish rather than subtitled, and were followed by extremely tedious and lengthy discussions between Garci and critics, or other luminaries of Spanish cinema.
Once considered among the most influential filmmakers in Spain, Garci decided not to consolidate his early success by developing a brand, like Almodóvar did, and instead of making the same film over and over again, like Almodóvar has done, he has instead preferred, as he puts it, “to make the films I like.”
And the kind of films he likes are fairly straightforward, modest, thoughtful affairs, the earliest of which now look very dated, but offer insight into the rapid social change that took place in the years following the death of Franco; such as 1977’s Unfinished Business (Asignatura pendiente), in which José Sacristán and Fiorella Faltoyano play a couple now in their thirties, whose youthful romance was never consummated due to the stifling social mores of the Franco era, and who have now married other people, lived abroad, but returned to Spain, and become lovers, thus addressing that pending subject.
Born in 1944, Garci belongs to the generation that had already grown up by the time Franco died, and who, in his view, had simply waited for the old dictator to pass away in his sleep. This theme comes up throughout Garci’s work: his heroes are typically dogged by a sense of moral failure, of personal cowardice, escaping from relationships and professional commitments. But they always return.
Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Dr Watson are dogged by any such shortcomings, nor are they escaping, or returning.
Instead, the movie is, by Garci’s admission, an excuse to recreate the Madrid of Benito Pérez Galdós: crepuscular, gas-lit, and the perfect setting for, yes, you guessed, Jack the Ripper to resume his, well, ripping adventures, and that among the swirling fog and witty repartee between our two heroes, with a cameo appearance by Justice Minister and former Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, who plays his own great grand-uncle, nationalist romantic composer Isaac Albéniz.
Garci says that he has seen the recent BBC series about the young Sherlock, as well as both of Guy Ritchie’s films, but in keeping with his love of vintage Hollywood, this version owes more to Basil Rathbone than Robert Downey Jr, although there isn’t a deerstalker in sight.
“I knew from the first film I made that my cinema was not auteur, and that it would not stand the test of time, but I don’t care, because all I care about is making movies,” said the director at the recent launch of his new film.
“Thirty years from now, Holmes & Watson will be seen as a simple film, with not much to say. And if there is more there, then I’m unaware of it, and it will be because somebody has looked for it,” replied Garci to a question as to whether he was trying to make a comment about Spain’s current predicaments by including a government minister and his inept, corrupt sidekicks trying to put a lid on a Jack the Ripper who seems to be protected by the powers that be.
Don’t believe him. Garci has always kept his political views to himself, but he has always believed that there is a deeper malaise eating at Spain, and perhaps, as he grows older, he sees the country returning to the dark Spain that he grew up in, and whose issues are still unresolved.
Holmes & Watson. Madrid Days is on general release across Spain.
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