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Mondays with Schobie: A Century of Sherlock

I recently spent two days with two very different incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and I’ve emerged more convinced than ever before that Holmes must be one of the smartest, most expertly drawn characters of the last 200 years. I mean, he can be played by Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, Christopher Lee, Roger Moore, Michael Caine, and Larry Hagman. If that’s not a sign of durability, I’m not sure what is.

Downey Jr. and Cumberbatch are our focus here, although for the complete breakdown of how the hell Larry Hagman ended up playing Sherlock Holmes, I highly recommend Alan Barnes’s Sherlock Holmes On Screen, a gloriously comprehensive book chronicling every appearance by the famous detective. (I’ve plugged this book before, and months later, I’m still enjoying it.)

Robert Downey Jr. was an inspired choice for Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, an adrenalized romp that also featured Jude Law as Dr. Watson and Rachel McAdams as Conan Doyle’s great Irene Adler. That first film was an enormous worldwide hit, and as a longtime fan of Ritchie (I must be one of the handful of film junkies who own both Swept Away and Revolver), I found his approach to the character a treat. This was a Holmes who could box, and was a martial arts master, as well as a thinker and wit.

As Barnes’s book adeptly notes, “The screenplay’s smartest innovation is to link [Holmes’ pugilistic] prowess to his deductive genius, as played out in Holmes’ internal monologue.” This, then, is Sherlock: Man of Action and Sherlock: The Intellectual.

Many critics were left cold by this approach, but for most viewers, it worked, and a sequel was quickly moved into production. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows was released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 12 (Warner Home Video), and having missed it on the big screen, I eagerly anticipated the chance to see if Ritchie could match or improve on his 2009 success.

Verdict? A Game of Shadows is another fun, breezy effort, a film that perhaps does not improve on its predecessor, but certainly matches it on the enjoyment scale. Smartly, it dispenses with McAdams’s Irene Adler within minutes, introducing a far more interesting female lead, a gypsy nicely played by the wonderful Noomi Rapace (the original Lisbeth Salander, and the star of Prometheus). Jude Law’s Watson is a bit more integral to the action, Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty is brought to life by the reliably great Jared Harris (RIP, Lane Pryce), an, best of all, Stephen Fry was added to the mix, as Holmes’s brother Mycroft.

And Downey Jr. himself is squarely in the groove. Clearly, Holmes is now second nature to him, and he gives a performance of utter confidence. It’s hard not to find him one of the most likable portrayers of Holmes yet.

The same could easily be said for Benedict Cumberbatch, the tall, wry British actor who stars as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock, the brilliant creation of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. This contemporary imagining of the character is, in many ways, far closer to Conan Doyle’s characters and stories than Ritche’s films. Yet it too is unafraid to depart when necessary. (Irene Adler? Dominatrix!)

In the two years since Sherlock’s initial airing on the BBC, Cumberbatch has become an international star, appearing in War Horse and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; next summer he is the villain in JJ Abrams’s Star Trek sequel. Yet I will find it hard not to see Holmes in every other performance he gives—call it James Gandolfini syndrome—so deft is his portrayal.

This Holmes texts, and is addicted to cigarettes (not cocaine), and is often thought to be gay. Martin Freeman’s Watson, meanwhile, is an Afghan war vet who becomes Holmes’ flatmate, and, eventually, cohort. And each of its six episodes (two series, each episode ninety minutes) is an involving mini-movie, of sorts. Even some of its absurdities, especially the “seriously?” post-script, draw a smile. 

We can consider both Downey and Cumberatch’s interpretations to be anti-Rathbone, but it’s hard to escape the iconography of the actor’s look and style. Basil Rathbone remains the Holmes in the minds of many, whether they’ve seen his films or not. But the blood is there, recognizably pumping the spirit of Conan Doyle.

So which is the “better” Sherlock? I’m not sure that’s even a relevant question. Both Downey and Cumberbatch bring something fresh, something, and something thrilling. But the films themselves are so radically different, and so inherently “re-imagined,” that to compare the two to each other, or any past Sherlocks, is unnecessary. For this is how it must be. To bring to life a character who first appeared in print in 1887, and has been brought to screens large and small so many times before, one had better be prepared to go someplace else. Fidelity is all well and good, but thank goodness for fisticuffs and mobile phones.

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