Monday, December 19, 2011

Irene Adler vs Mary Morstan: The Women of Sherlock Holmes

Director Guy Ritchie's 2009 hit Sherlock Holmes gives us a tale of two women: the very naughty Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and the prim governess Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) and both women make appearances in the new sequel A Game of Shadows. The women Watson (Jude Law) and Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) are attracted to says a lot about them, however, the portrayals of these two women, and the ends to which their lifestyles come, also says a lot about our culture. In short, Irene and Mary are perfect diametrical oppositions for each other and the way their personalities are drawn for us reveals a great deal about one of the reasons why this is such a great film.
These are the items we learn about Mary Morstan from Sherlock Holmes' deductions about her at their first meeting: she is a governess, she was engaged and had a ring from her finacee but he died; she has borrowed the necklace she wears from her employer and she is engaged to be married to a doctor (Watson). We know that Mary "has a pile of detective novels at home. Wilkie Collins, Poe--" but we don't know if she's interested to meet Holmes because he's a real detective like she's read about, or if she has read Collins and Poe because she knew she would be meeting Holmes. This situation is a reversal from Irene: Holmes keeps a file for "reading on her" as Mary has read about detectives; whereas Mary has read novels, Irene is genuine villainy. Of course, this is the reason why the dinner goes so badly: Holmes tries to read Mary like a book, but specifically, he tries to read her like a criminal profile, because she's stealing Watson from him, and that's why he has such an unfavorable "reading of her character" at dinner, he's not treating her as a lady, he's treating Mary like he would treat Irene.
What is Holmes' first hint that she isn't up to his caliber?
At dinner, Mary says, "It does seem far-fetched at times, making these grand assumptions out of such tiny details," and this upsets Holmes; because Irene knows "how to deduce" and reason the way Holmes does, so, Holmes concludes incorrectly, that Mary can't deduce at all, and whatever he decides about Mary must be correct (because she's one-dimensional). But he first tries to show Watson as being "damaged goods" by pointing out his gambling habit in hopes Mary will find that disagreeable. When that doesn't work, Holmes punishes her.
Mary is always a lady, but Irene is whatever happens to be convenient at the time. Please note how her hair is all messed up: that symbolizes how "messed up" her thoughts are right now, knowing that Moriarty is stealing the remote control device and that Holmes is in trouble for his life, she loves him but she also loves her criminal life, ultimately more than him.
 The reason why Mary was lent the necklace by her employer is, as Holmes points out, because of her experience of not acting rashly with the 7 year-old-boy, Charlie, her charge; Irene's diamond necklace, on the other hand, is from her experience at stealing (which we see her do after she leaves Holmes apartment and she takes flowers and the man's money from him). Charlie flicking ink at Mary is very similar to what Holmes is doing to her at dinner: flicking mud at her image. Why did Mary's fiancee die? I know this seems a strange question, yet I think it's a writing device to fill in the knowledge for us that Mary has read detective novels for a long time, and perhaps had been infatuated with the detectives read therein but now, meeting a real detective is disappointing; by linking death with Holmes, in Mary's mind, Holmes has just died because he's not the charming gentleman Mary had probably imagined (someone like Watson) and so when Mary and Watson walk in on him hanging himself in the apartment (towards the end of the film) and she insists that Watson get him down, it's like she's resurrected Holmes in her estimation of him.
Watson and Holmes have spent the night in prison and Mary has come with the bail to get Watson out but not Holmes. This is a strange shot of her, and I think we are meant to take it that way: Mary is in a strange mood, and she is quite out of sorts. She normally would not behave this way (and she comes out with shining colors in A Game of Shadows) and I think that's why we see her "through the bars of the prison" because Holmes has imprisoned her in his low estimation of her (or she at least feels that way) so that's why she leaves Holmes in prison.
What Holmes does during dinner at the Royale, is bring up the subject of money to create a gap between Watson's gambling ("He's cost us the rent more than once,") and Mary's supposed disdain of the "modest value" of the ring from her first engagement (if she's expecting a financially secure and comfortable life with Watson, Holmes wants to blow that for her). Why does Mary throw her wine on Holmes? Because that's what he has done to her, "staining her image" before Watson (wine is really tough to get out when it stains, like lies are tough to disprove, or a person's image difficult to cleanse) and so, in anger, she wants to do to him what he has just done to her. This is all the more disappointing because, she really wanted to meet him, whereas Irene meets Sherlock initially because she's a criminal and secondly, (in the film) because she has a job for him to do. Why does Holmes not guess that Mary's previous engagement was broken off by death? Irene, in between husbands, left the last one because "He was boring and jealous and he snored" and so presumed that Mary would have left her engagement over something as shallow (because Holmes asks Irene, "How much did you get for the ring?"). Why doesn't Holmes apologize? Because he can't. You can't apologize after that huge of a mistake, but he will make it up to her.
Before Irene breaks into Holmes' apartment, the camera lingers over the light hanging at 221B Baker Street, telling us that we are about to be "illuminated" by what we are shown. Holmes sleeps when we hear her voice. The first time we "saw" Irene she was speaking (to the man at the bar) but we couldn't hear, now we can hear her but we can't see her; this illustrates for us that she is never where her words are, in other words, she is a liar (a person keeps their word because their word is a part of them, but Irene's words and her are separated). What do we hear her doing? Cracking walnuts with her bare hands. This has two purposes: first, to demonstrate that, unlike Mary, who would not do such a thing with her bare hands, Irene is not a lady (it demonstrates her "manly strength" and, with her wearing of manly clothes later) and the second purpose is more explicit, sexually; Holmes will start playing with his violin while she's there and that, too, is sexual (playing with "his instrument") so we know they have a long, sexual history together.
What do we know about Irene Adler?
Irene Adler outsmarted Holmes before and she is a woman of appetites (the "A" of her initials on her hankerchief she leaves for Holmes on the railing of the boxing pen is like The Scarlet Letter of Hester) not to mention that she is wearing a red velvet dress to the boxing match (so material fashion and luxury is a part of her appetites as well as sexual pleasure; she is a woman acquainted with boxing matches (she knows where Holmes is and how to talk to the manager to get a message to him) and she winks at him, symbolizing that she is only half as intelligent as she should be (the eyes symbolize wisdom that is why, a few scenes later, Watson will get upset that Holmes is drinking medicine meant for eye surgery, he's "feeding his eyes," i.e., his wisdom) but Irene keeps one eye closed, meaning she doesn't foresee the consequences of her actions.
Further, when we see her in Holmes' apartment, she's eating nuts (a sign of her appetites) and Holmes is lying upon an animal skin--Irene appeals to his animal passions--and she talks about the foods she has brought from other countries, so Irene (being an American from New Jersey) is very foreign to Holmes. About her hot pink dress: that's about the worst color for a Victorian dress I have ever seen, and it's intentional. Pink is the color of femininty, but Irene's femininity is "blaring" (she is too obnoxious to be truly feminine). In terms of color symbols, pink is the color of imperfect love because it's on its way to becoming love, to be filled out completely (please see "Pink" under "Colors" in How To Eat Art). She can't develop perfect love (for Sherlock or anyone else) because she's so materialistic. Irene is always wearing a disguise: either as a lady of wealth and position or as a man, and because she's a criminal, she fails to ever be genuine.
The flowers on her hat (for any other woman) would symbolize her virtuous thoughts and social decorum; for Irene, however, they are obviously fake as she wears a disguise of propriety just as Holmes wears a disguise so he can follow her unseen. Why doesn't Irene see Holmes under the disguise? Like Holmes, her arrogance that she's the only one smart enough to wear a social disguise (a facade) means she isn't on the look out to catch it when someone else does it.
Both women have cause to come and visit "their men" when they are ill: Mary visits Watson after the explosion at Blackwood's warehouse when he has been burned and then Irene visits Holmes when he's been trying to solve Blackwood's crime and falls sick (because Moriarty sends her back to Holmes). Mary, obviously, cares about Watson and comes to see to his needs when he can't care for himself, but Irene would happily flee Holmes to care for herself (which is what she does at the warehouse, she recovers before Holmes and flees). Mary being at Watson's side when he is hurt is important in forming Holmes' understanding of her, but even more so, she doesn't blame Holmes, she charges him to finish it, whatever the cost, and knowing that (even at the cost of Watson's life) she would support him against Blackwood's evil schemes is what is weighed in the balance for her favor, instead of Irene who would do anything to throw Holmes off the scent.
Holmes chases Irene through the sewers because that's an illustration of what he has come to think of her; yes, he cares for her, but he also knows she can't be reformed and she's really nothing above the London sewers. Mary, on the other hand, ascends (she and Watson go up the staircase at Holmes' apartment when they walk in and find him "hanging"). She also enters into "the armory" where both Mary and Holmes have "put down their weapons" and make friends. Everyone knows that Mary cares for Watson, but Holmes doesn't know that Irene cares for him, and even when they are sitting on the bridge, it doesn't seem like he really believes her that she does. Smart man.
So what does Mary Morstan and Irene Adler say about our culture?
The good girls win out, ultimately, even though it's the Irene Adlers living it up and having a good time. There are two other important women in this film: the young girl Blackwood tries to sacrifice and the woman who was Blackwood's mother. Both those women went the way of Irene and look at what happened to them; Mary, on the other hand, is a governess of her appetites and emotions and can "teach" women of today about being independent but also finding love, and the proper way to achieve the proper balance. 
In many ways, Irene Adler mirrors women of today in her diversified skills, sexual appetites and even masculine attitude towards life. Her employment with Professor Moriarity ends in A Game of Shadows and it's a fitting end, whereas Mary not only weds Watson, but aides Holmes in the process but Mary isn't a mirror at all for women of today.