So, I have seen, all told, four on-screen portrayals of the Great Detective. They are Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock”), Johnny Lee Miller (“Elementary”), Robert Downey Jr. (the Guy Ritchie movies), and Jeremy Brett (BBC’s “Sherlock Holmes”, running from the late 80’s to early 90’s).
I am in the middle of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes “Hound of the Baskervilles” (30’s and 40’s).
In my quest find the Definitive Holmes(TM) I’ve come to divide the Holmes portrayals into three categories: Best portrayal (performance-wise, taking into account that each adaptation is true enough to the stories to indisputably be recognized as Sherlock Holmes), most accurate (true to the original Conan Doyle canon), and definitive (the Holmes that is most associated as representing the respective generation’s concept of what it means to be Sherlock Holmes).
For best portrayal I will still have to go with Benedict Cumberbatch. The man hits all the right notes. He manages to take a Holmes portrayal that can be genuinely nasty at times and somehow make him likeable and somebody we want to root for. The character arc he goes through from “The Empty Hearse” to “His Last Vow” is stunningly believable, subtle yet clearly present. He embodies the conception of Holmes that sees him as a man of ice with a heart buried underneath.
For most accurate, it is currently clearly Jeremy Brett, but after seeing some of Basil Rathbone (by the way, I heartily recommend the Rathbone version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, which is free on youtube and so far thoroughly enjoyable), I’m starting to wonder if he won’t displace him. Even Brett portrays Holmes with a veneer of nastiness I don’t get from Holmes in the original stories (you can really see it in the adaptation of “The Dancing Men”). Rathbone comes off as less nasty and more mechanical. He’s not lording it over people that he’s superior, he simply IS, and if he points out to you that you failed it’s not to insult you or prove that he’s better but only because you did, in fact, fail. I’m really enjoying his portrayal of the character, and if it stays consistent throughout he might just displace Brett and win the “Most Accurate” title.
As for definitive, I no longer think there is just one. Rather, there is one for each generation. Holmes’s popularity soars and dips, and right now we are definitely in a surge, due in part to “House” (actually, I could add him as a fifth Holmes adaptation I’ve seen), in part to “Sherlock” and in part to the Guy Ritchie films. Johnny Lee Miller is just riding the wave. For the definitive Holmes of the early 21st century I’ll have to give it to Benedict Cumberbatch. Robert Downey Jr. is a lot of fun, but Cumberbatch’s Holmes is better written, more accurate, and at least as well acted, if not (and this is high praise) BETTER acted. Sorry Hugh Laurie, RDJ, and Johnny Lee Miller, you’re all great but not Cumberbatch great.
As for the late 20th century it has to go to Jeremy Brett, of course. Who else? I have to say, small criticisms of his portrayal aside his Holmes is indeed terrifically acted and very, very accurate. I can see why people think of him as THE one and only definitive Holmes.
And that leaves the early to mid twentieth century, and of course it’s no question that Basil Rathbone takes the cake here. He’s more than popular. He’s actually REALLY good, too.
As for Watson, well, it’s Martin Freeman then everybody else. Nigel Bruce is actually famously inaccurate, David Burke/Edward Hardwicke are decent but boring, DON’T EVEN MENTION LUCY LIU, and Wilson of “House” is a pretty good portrayal of the Watson archetype, but not great, and his role as “the Watson” is slowly taken over by the team as a whole.
Jude Law was actually very good, and physically he clearly resembles Watson far more than Freeman does. But Freeman is by far the best. If this scene doesn’t make you at least a little emotional, then you’re simply not human. He takes the role of sidekick, played opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, and manages to make it at least as brilliantly memorable, if not more so. Freeman is the master at conveying emotion through facial expressions.
Well, this was a fun change of pace from the decidedly dark, mentally exhausting, and emotionally exhausting roller coaster that is the abortion debate. Anybody else a Sherlock Holmes fan? Any thoughts?