The Cinematic Mr. Holmes

I don’t profess to be an expert on Sherlock Holmes (… actually, that’s a lie.) I’m not even sure when I discovered him, but it was sometime after graduating from Nancy Drew to more serious fare. You know, stuff where the chapters did not end with an exclamation point. (“Nancy was hanging forty feet above the snapping jaws of a ravenous blue alligator!” “The stolen car was about to crash into the ocean and go up in a ball of flames!”) I loved mysteries when I was a preteen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a decent alternative to the icky stuff I was bound to encounter in the adult mystery section of the local library. All I know is that a few pages in, when Watson was horrified to discover Holmes beating corpses in the morgue to determine how long bruises form after death, I was hooked. This sounded like a detective I would like. (What can I say? I have always been slightly demented. Just ask my mother, who is still worried about me… even more so after reading a few of my novels.)

But I devoured those books, swiftly obtained multiple copies of them (I think I am now in possession of three separate sets — a giant book that has them all in one, a two-book paperback series, and three gorgeous hardbacks, but I wouldn’t turn down more if you ever want to send me any!), and then with glee started in on the film incarnations. And I found out something: there are a lot of Sherlock Holmes’s out there, and only a few even vaguely resemble the original stories. But what’s more than that, every Sherlockian has an opinion on who is the best Holmes, and only a few of them agree on anything. Some of them are easygoing; others are by the book diehards. A fortunate few (like me) can look at the book and on screen as two completely different mediums and forgive changes (within reason)… but even we have our limits. (We’ll get to that in a moment, and don’t say you weren’t warned!)

Anyway, as we approach the December issue of Femnista and its celebration of crime-solving sleuths, it seems like high time to discuss Sherlock Holmes on screen. Go forth knowing that I’m serious about my Holmes. How could I not be? He was my first literary love, and any actor who plays him well earns an automatic ticket straight to my “I love that actor” list. Any actor who doesn’t, on the other hand, well, let’s just say they have to work mighty hard to get off my “he sucks” list. (Do I really have one of those? Oh, yes…)

Since attempting to assemble these figures into any sort of canonical order would be a nightmare, I’m going to break it down rather simply for you – the Holmes’ I love, the Holmes’ I am indifferent to, and the Holmes’ I cannot stand – either by way of atrocious plots or bad casting. Since I’d much rather get you all mad right off by insulting a movie many of you love, let’s start with the versions of Sherlock Holmes I absolutely cannot stand, no matter how many times I have tried to appreciate their nuances.

(Before I start, you may wonder what criteria I base my opinion on, and what really it all boils down to with me is whether this Holmes is remotely like the real Holmes. Does he even seem like the same person in the books? If so, I’m fine with it. If not, that movie can die in a fire.)

Robert Downey Jr.
Where do I even begin? This movie is a travesty. I honestly tried to like it. I really did. I went into the theater with an open mind, sat down, and five minutes in (about the time I watched Holmes slow-mo punch a guy) knew I was going to hate it. Midway through, I wanted to walk out. But I stuck it out to the end, listened to all my friends gushing about it for weeks without tearing their heads off, and then tried a second time when it hit DVD. Nope, I still hated it. I liked it a little more than the first time, but honestly, that wouldn’t be hard. As far as making this Holmes like the “real” one – not a chance. This Holmes is a jerk. This Holmes is deliberately inconsiderate. This Holmes is petty and insecure and selfish and treats women rudely. This Holmes is befuddled and romantically attached to Irene Adler. This Holmes brawls in underground street gangs for petty cash, and I’m not even sure Watson actually likes him. It doesn’t help that Robert Downey Jr. is playing him, an actor with the wrong body type and … well, to be honest, I just don’t like him.

(The “Sherlock Holmes & Irene Adler” plot line is one that consistently gets on my nerves – for the last time, Sherlock Holmes was not in love with Irene Adler! He admired her only because she was the only woman that ever outsmarted him, and he kept her photograph on the mantle as a reminder of his own mistake. Yes, I am rather sensitive on this topic.)

Matt Frewer
In addition to some weird changes (uh… vampires?), I simply don’t like Matt Frewer. He is a comical actor who turns everything into a joke – there is never a moment when he’s not twisting his face around into contortions. He too is besotted with and seduced by Irene. Just… no, please no.

Rupert Everett
The dry-as-bones, deadpan acting works in Oscar Wilde but sticks out like a sore thumb when playing Holmes. And don’t even get me started on the horrors of the original plot, which meanders through a bunch of “huh??” moments as any audience familiar with Victorian England is left constantly saying, “That would never have happened…” Maybe with a better actor it would have worked, but I doubt it.

James D’Arcy
Oh, how I wish this actor had been given better material to work with, because he LOOKS like an ideal young Sherlock Holmes. Alas, TNT gave him a hammy film in which he is something of a womanizer (… eh?) and winds up romantically entangled with a leading lady. He and Watson have a love-hate relationship that is mostly hate for a decent chunk of the film, and there were moments I wondered if the grisly autopsies were supposed to stand in for the actual plot.

Richard Roxburgh
I actually kind of like this actor, but after this ghastly adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles for the BBC, I was thinking that maybe Holmes wasn’t the only one “shooting up” on set. This Holmes is a drug addict, stuck with a Watson who doesn’t even like him much and certainly doesn’t “trust” him, in a mystery that has had all the good stuff removed from it and has been repainted with “new” elements. Some of these were good ideas, others (such as Holmes falling into the swamp and nearly drowning) were crapastic plot points drawn from the outer dregs of hell. Also, anyone who can get through the infamous “I would like a plaster of your skull, until the original is avaliable” scene without busting out laughing, is to be admired. Who has the better profile, the short, muscular Roxburgh or the angular, tall Richard E. Grant? (Why wasn’t he cast as Holmes? No idea, but it is merely one of a long list of questions I have about this film.)

So, now that we have put those actors through the shredder, let’s move on to Holmes’ I am indifferent to.

Jeremy Brett
I heard that. You all gasped out loud. A Sherlock Holmes fan who doesn’t think Jeremy Brett is incredible? Perish the thought! But there has to be one dissenter and that would be me. I like the fact that for awhile, the adaptations were fairly true to the source material. (In the beginning… later on the series got really weird, and not in a good way.) I liked Brett fine in the first season, when he was young and energetic and almost looked the part. But his illness and rapid aging did not do him any favors – he got much older in later seasons, his voice deepened so much that it was hard to understand him, and he lost his lean figure. I’m sorry he was ill, I think that’s tragic, but it ruined the series for me. I might also add that I was severely miffed at how badly “The Musgrave Ritual” was botched, considering it is my favorite of the short stories. Me? Bitter? You bet.

Peter Cushing
He did a big-screen version of The Hound of the Baskervilles for Hammer Films and several television episodes for the BBC (including one of the few adaptations of A Study in Scarlet — they seem afraid to film that. Gee, maybe it has something to do with its depiction of the Victorian Mormon Church?). Alas, only a handful of the television episodes have survived, and they are diminished through poor production quality – but in spite of being too short for the role, Cushing does an excellent job. I particularly like him in HotB even though the significant changes to the role made me scratch my head a bit. Still, not in my top favorites.

Christopher Plummer
Never thought I’d throw his name out there, did you? He appears in Murder by Decree, which pits Holmes against Jack the Ripper. Even though the movie is a little slow and just plain crazy at the end, Plummer is a very empathetic Holmes, much more so than many actors choose to play him. He seems more emotional (which isn’t a great thing, in my mind) but in doing so, connects on a deeper level with the audience. He surprised me, in a good way, and the film paints him as having a really good friendship with Watson, which I appreciate.

Robert Stephens
Nothing about the rather notorious Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is commonplace. It is deliberate and decided camp from start to finish, a jaunt through Holmes with a severe attack of sarcasm on the side, the kind of screwball take on Holmes that one would expect from the 1970’s, when nothing was sacred. Yet in spite of its more shocking moments, it is surprisingly respectful to the nature of Holmes, and that is why it gets a pass whereas other adaptations might not.

Frank Langella
Though he never played him on screen, he did play him on stage – and I’ve seen the performance. Much as I love Frank, I just cannot love the play because of its pathetic, absurd, stupid ending, in which Holmes falls in love. I was enjoying it up until that point and then I think three states over heard me scream “what the hell?!” One of the things I like most about Holmes is the fact that he’s asexual. Please, filmmakers, stop messing with that!

Because I haven’t enough to say about these fellows, I’ll mention them all in one go: Ronald Howard played Holmes in a television series from the 1950’s. I really haven’t much of an opinion on these, since it has been a long time since I watched them, but I remember enjoying the creativity with which the stories were crafted. Ronald (son of Leslie Howard) is a decent enough actor and the resemblance he bears to his father is uncanny. Guy Henry was in Young Sherlock, and he was marvelous – it was a miniseries and he looked and fit the role perfectly as what a younger version of the Great Detective might be like. And last but not least, in spite of being too “old” for the part, Charlton Heston did a surprisingly good Holmes in Crucifier of Blood. (Who knew Moses could pull it off?)

And last but not least, Holmes’ I love.

Basil Rathbone
This man fits my mental image of Holmes, from his sharp features that look exactly like the Sidney Padget drawings to the rich depths of his voice. Tragically, however, he was only asked to appear in two period films – the rest of his Sherlock Holmes series are “modernizations,” set in the 1930’s and 40’s and often pitting him against the Nazis. I don’t mind that, but I don’t care for their use of Nigel Bruce as Watson. Other films have proven he’s a superb actor, so I wish they had given him a real role to work with, rather than the cartoonish buffoon that Watson becomes on-screen (a trend that alas, carries into many later adaptations). Is this moron really the doctor who was injured in the line of duty and proves a formidable foil for Holmes’ intellect? I think not. Still, I admire their ingenuity and Rathbone is marvelous.

Here, I’m going to throw in a nod to Disney’s animated The Great Mouse Detective. What a fantastic twist on Sherlock Holmes for kids – throwing in Professor Rattigan, a dramatic showdown on Big Ben, and a broken violin for good measure – not to mention the mice borrowing “Toby” (Holmes’ sniffer-dog) for the afternoon. Oh, and Basil Rathbone is even in it, playing the voice of… guess who… Sherlock Holmes! I can still remember his line: “There is a great deal of German music on the program… it is introspective, and I want to introspect it.”

… I am such a dork.

Nicholas Rowe
Granted, this may seem a little inconsistent with earlier complaints, because Holmes does have a love interest in Young Sherlock Holmes, but I justify it in the fact that this is a “young” Holmes, and takes great pains to explain how certain traditions, tendencies, and belief patterns were established in his life from this film forward. I love the humor and horror of this film, how one moment it is a traditional cheeky British boarding school drama and the next it explodes into this demented “Sherlock Holmes & the Pyramid of Terror” Indiana Jones plot. I have no idea what Speilberg was smoking at the time, but who cares? Nicholas is a great casting choice – tall, thin, with a dramatic profile, at times rude and at others surprisingly tender. I forgive the fact that he falls in love, because I like him so much.

Ian Richardson
I freely admit to a bias when it comes to Ian Richardson. I think he’s a bloody good Shakespearian actor, particularly in his later acting career. (It seems that this opinion is shared by many of his peers, including Helen Mirren, whom he mentored.) He appears in two BBC productions of Holmes, The Sign of the Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles. As far as literal adaptations go, they only vaguely resemble the book and are sometimes pure camp (don’t get me started on the carnival sequence), but the character of Holmes is fabulous. He has a sense of humor, particularly when dealing with the police, he is very likable, and is in no way a pushover – I particularly love the moment when he snatches a lantern out of Watson’s hand and takes off after the villain into the mire, only to wind up on his hands and knees, trying to pull the fiend to safety when he falls in, both out of basic compassion and his desire for human justice. THAT is “my” Holmes.

Last but not least, we have Benedict Cumberbach.

Friends were leery about recommending the modernized Holmes to me because of my bitch-fit over the big-screen adaptation six months earlier… much to their surprise, I loved Sherlock from the first appearance of Holmes onward. I don’t mind the modernization, because it is done in a clever way, and the characters are still the same as in the books. Holmes may be a little more extreme (he is pretty much a straightforward, paint by the numbers INTJ personality type, which amuses me to no end) but he is the same neurotic man I fell in love with in print. True, some things about the series bug me (like the constant references to homosexuality – okay, we get it, two men living together these days… ha-ha, move on already) and I think only one of the three episodes is truly brilliant (Moffat’s!), but… it’s fun. It’s quotable. I love it so much I have Sherlock’s silhouette on a t-shirt, for mercy’s sake… and it’s my favorite shirt.

Speaking of which, how long do we have to wait for season two, BBC? I’m starting to get annoyed, and trust me, you do not want to annoy an INTJ. When we get bored, we tend to shoot things!!

7 Replies to “The Cinematic Mr. Holmes”

  1. sooo funny… because you and i seem to share a ridiculously strong attachment to the character and yet I cannot stand basil rathbone (probably because he represents the horrible adaptations where they ruined my beloved watson); whereas i was able to stand richard roxburgh and downey jr. versions —namely because both had GREAT watsons. I think Jude Law looks a LOT like the Paget illustration Watson and, thus, a lot like the watson i knew growing up. I LOVE the BBC sherlock. It surpasses the Brett ones (which are my second favourite—though Watson-issues to be had there, too) which long-reigned as my cinematic favs.

    LEAST favourite Holmes: Rupert Everett, Christopher Lee (GAH!), Christopher Plummer (!!!!) and, of course, FREWER– the worst of them all.

    1. I suppose it boils down to our preferences for Watson being so different. I admire and like Watson and it irritates me if he is mis-represented (which is one reason I loathe the Roxburgh versions so much — I thought that was a dreadful Watson, since he seemed to carry a grudge against Holmes) but if they do a decent Holmes, I can overlook it, yet if they make Holmes into a moron (like in the Robert Downey Jr. version) … I automatically hate it.

      Ah well, different strokes for different folks.

  2. LOVE, LOVE the new BBC series – honestly cannot wait for S2. Also, loved the feature film… and I cannot wait for the sequel this December. Ideal Holmes or not, RDJ was hilarious in the role – he and Jude were a great buddy-duo. =D

      1. Had to laugh at your “shock and horror” of RDJ’s portrayal of Homes. ;-D Since I haven’t read the novels, it doesn’t bother me, and despite it all… I think that bit of the movie looks… well, funny. LOL!

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