Okay. I admit it! I was a Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce fan when it came to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. I mean, those were the only movies featuring the famed English detective and his durable companion that I saw as a young lad and veteran TV watcher.
It was later in the 1980s when I saw Jeremy Brett as Sherlock in the beloved but all too brief British TV series that I realized there was life beyond Rathbone as far as Holmes portrayals were concerned. Arguably the late actor’s take on the fabled sleuth is as close to the original Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as any of the numerous depictions over the years.
When I heard that a modern day Sherlock Holmes was in the works I was more than wary. (The thought of Conan Doyle’s fabled fictional figure texting made me shudder.)
However, when I noticed screenwriter Stephen Moffat and actor/writer Mark Gatiss were behind the new version, I relaxed slightly. After all, these two men, between them, have been responsible for breathing new life into the creaky old British television institution, Doctor Who and successfully subverting Robert Louis Stevenson’s famed novella “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in BBC-TV’s limited series Jekyll and reinventing it in a contemporary setting. I figured if anyone could retool Sherlock Holmes for a modern audience it would be these two creative geniuses. (The idea of presenting Sherlock Holmes in a more modern context is not exactly new. (In several movies filmed during WW2 Holmes/Rathbone fights the Nazis.)
However, even the ingenious Moffat-Gatiss team could not have pulled it off without a previously little-known English actor with the unlikely name of Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role (aided and abetted by the protean Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson). True, the settings are markedly different from the Holmes novel (although the writers borrow from the original plots) but Mr. Cumberbatch captures the spirit, the self-absorption, the …. singularity of the character so adeptly that the whole flight-of-fancy experiment works. In fact, he plays the role so well I was worried Mr. Cumberbatch might be typecast. (Try to find anything in Mr. Brett’s resume that does not deal with Holmes after his epic portrayal of the legendary detective in the 1980s TV series.) I needn’t have worried. Mr. Cumberbatch has appeared in a blizzard of films, TV shows, voice overs and even videogames in the last few years. (I can picture him aging gracefully, like Michael Caine, into a fine character actor.)
There is a rumor that CBS initially approached the makers of Sherlock to adapt the program for the American market and when negotiations fell through (for various reasons) the U.S. network created its own modern day Sherlock series called Elementary with Brit actor Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and the always entertaining Lucy Liu as a female Dr. Watson. The idea of a female Watson may be clever but it’s not exactly new. In the 1987 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes American actress Margaret Colin plays a private detective named Jane Watson (Holmes’ companion, Dr. Watson, is an ancestor) who helps Holmes (played by Brit stage veteran Michael Pennington) adapt to, yes, the modern world (Holmes has been frozen cryogenically and Jane revives him.) Interestingly enough, The Return of Sherlock Holmes was a CBS TV movie. Holmes’ fabled nemesis, Moriarty, is also played in Elementary by a woman, English actress Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones fame. Now in its fifth season, Elementary is obviously a hit in the American market. But it’s no Sherlock!
As for the Robert Downey Jr.-Jude Law series of films (a third one is rumored to be in the works) what they have done to the Sherlock Holmes legend in those films is truly criminal.