At first I was annoyed because the movie wasn't purely canon, but then most Holmes movies aren't faithful. The plot was a blend of the original story with Conan Doyle's play adaptation; the film includes characters from the 1910 play such as Mrs. Staunton, Rodgers, and Ali, and it substitutes the names Violet for Julia and Rylott for Roylott. (Incidentally, ACD's play The Stonor Case reads like a "best of" Holmes pastiche, and resembles William Gillette's mishmash Holmes play.)
But oh the movie was grand and delicious! Lyn Harding, who originated Dr. Grimesby Rylott in the stage version and later played Moriarty in films, really shines as the villian. He gets to be menacing and really show off his temper. Now I see why Lyn Harding was used so much, even though he doesn't fit the physical descriptions of either Moriarty or Roylott. Anyway, based on the play, Watson is an old friend of Helen Stoner's mother, and he was called down to Stoke Moran to testify in the inquiry into Violet's sudden death. Thankfully, the script writer cut out most of ACD's interminable coroner inquiry scene; instead Watson sums up the important things to Holmes. Then a year later, Helen gets engaged and begs them for help once Rylott moves her into Violet's room.
Watson is played by Athole Stewart, who does a good job. It's unfortunate that he's bald, which makes him look so much older than Helen Stoner (probably intentional to make him seem fatherly to her) and older than Holmes too. But he definitely has the proper spirit and warmth of the good doctor. I just wish that Conan Doyle himself hadn't changed the time setting of the story, shifting it from an early 1883 adventure into one that took place when Watson was no longer living in Baker Street. When we will ever see a young Holmes and Watson pair?
Raymond Massey as Holmes is wonderful. He is full of energy and sardonic humor. I adored seeing him in disguise as a building laborer who is rude to Watson for no damn reason, before revealing himself. It's very playful to see that he can still fool Watson just with a hat, glasses, and mustache. I enjoyed seeing Holmes examine the rooms while still in his costume. He even lets Watson help him out by looking for the ventilator (which is actually a much bigger panel in the wall) in Rylott's room. (I wondered why the writers didn't just make it so that the snake went down one of the posts of her big four poster bed; that would be way more plausible than ACD's original bellrope. A snake could certainly climb up a sturdy post so long as it had a textured surface to grip.) It doesn't hurt that Holmes looks dashing in his fedora hat, either.
I didn't quite get the scene showing that Holmes has secretaries in Baker Street who operate a machine that's supposed to record and index all his information on criminals; an early attempt at a computer database, perhaps? But the machine was too far into modern technology and wholly unnecessary. However, it was charming to see him sit with Watson and tease him about being recorded on the machine so that Holmes doesn't have to rely on Watson's romanticized writings when he wants to refer to old information. Frankly, I think Holmes really does it because he likes having Watson's voice always available to hear. To "turn on your soul," as Henry Higgins said to Eliza Doolittle. Speaking of slashiness, the final scene is satisfyingly subtexty:
Holmes: From your clothes, Watson, I should deduce you're going to a wedding.
Watson: [laughs heartily] At last I've got you. For once in your life you're wrong.
Watson: I'm not going to a wedding! I'm coming from one! [He explains that it's Miss Stoner's wedding, and that he's going to go see them again before they leave on their trip. He invites Holmes along, but is turned down.]
Holmes: [sardonically] Give them my congratulations or perhaps condolences.
Watson: Rubbish! We all come to it, my dear fellow. [he laughs again] We all come to it. [he pauses at the door to invite Holmes again, then says goodnight and leaves]
Holmes: [alone, ironically and sadly, after Watson has left] Not all, my dear Watson... not all.
I couldn't believe my ears and eyes, that such a scene would be shown in 1931! That was a damn fine film. Guy Ritchie, you now have a new standard for your film to be measured against!