the sign of three (sherlocks, that is)
I think the original appeal of Sherlock Holmes stemmed from the book he resided in when I first discovered him. It was a massive old book with a weak spine and crisp, thin pages. It was the kind of book I read despite its contents. However, as I walked past the slightly smudged words and intothe foggy streets of London with my favorite hawk-nosed hero, I found myself falling in love, not only with the smell of the book, but with its contents.
And I don’t just mean the stories.
Growing up, I had been told more times and by more people than I would care to admit that curiosity killed the cat. I usually was in enough trouble before this overwhelmingly sound logic was addressed to me to point out that I really was more of the dog type. And once I had discovered Sherlock Holmes, I didn’t even need that argument. He not only felt free to unleash his curiosity on anyone unfortunate enough to pull out a scratched pocket watch in his presence, but he also acted, manipulated, talked and outright lied his way out of, and more importantly, into deliciously sticky situations.
Is it any wonder that marry Sherlock Holmes had soared soared straight to the top of my life’s to-do list by the time I had finished The Dancing Men? I was unfortunately nine at the time I mapped out my love life, and even I realized that my goal was a long way off. I filled the time left to me with the creation of complex codes I immediately forgot how to crack; deciphering (with what I hoped was an expression of veiled genius) the home life of my pediatrician from his tan line and practicing putting my fingertips together and inhaling with that perfect flare of the nostrils Jeremy Brett so dexterously executed.
For Jeremy Brett, from my first glimpse of that narrow nose, gained a permanent place as the actor who completely captured the essence and genius of Holmes. Just as people claim their Doctor, Jeremy Brett is my Holmes: the one by whom all others must be judged.
Jeremy Brett epitomized Arthur’s original Sherlock. He was equal parts compassionate and belittling, and while his Holmes had a flair of acting by nature, neither extreme was remotely false.
“You mean well, Watson. Shall I demonstrate your own ignorance?”
“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.”
He was sharp and unique while remaining a perfect gentleman, and avoiding the quirkiness that other actors have drawn from his unusual methods. His Holmes was the most brutally honest regarding his ongoing struggle with substance abuse, sinking into stupors of morphine and cocaine when his mind lacked appropriate diversion: “Give me the most abstruse cryptogram, most intricate analysis, and I am in my proper atmosphere. Then I can dispense with artificial stimulants. I crave mental exultation.” He was grandiose while showing a remarkable capacity for unexpected and highly illogical love. His interest in Irene Adler was more of an intellectual duel than a romantic spark. No, it was a kind, uneducated maid who showed him how to kiss and how to be touched, and in the end, how to feel the pain of lost love.
It was this vulnerability that brought Sherlock Holmes to life in Jeremy Brett, who channeled the personal tragedy of his wife’s death and his subsequent struggle with bipolarity into a flawed, brilliant, and ultimately, most needy Holmes to date.
Robert Downey Jr., on the other hand, brought out a younger-minded Holmes; one with some fire in his veins. Not only was the very un-Victorian stubble here to shock and here to stay for the entire film, everything from his chases to his deductions to his experiments were performed with far less decorum that Jeremy Brett’s Holmes would ever have dreamed. He loved, shot, boxed and drank with an abandon to match his 21st century audience. Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock was, without a doubt, infected with some of the actor’s former bad boy roles. And here is my confession: I loved every minute of it. Because through it all, his Holmes was kept on careful track with smoothly performed quotes from earlier incarnations (“My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work.”), uncontrived camaraderie between himself and Watson, and literal blow-by-blow flashes of logical reasoning, perfectly executed. Even his highly uncharacteristic boxing skills are at least remotely in character with Sherlock’s occasional feats of strength, and are a clever substitute for drug abuse in today’s fragile, role-model needy society. His romantic relationship with Irene Adler is significantly tweaked, but the same ever-shifting game of wits was maintained admirably. Would this clever and cocky Sherlock have stood the test of a long-running television show? Probably not. But the witty, if occasionally bumbling incarnation of the famous detective did justice to his genre, as long as you have some popcorn to go down with it.
The most recent realization of Sherlock Holmes is so drastically different from any of his predecessors that I have very nearly been swept off my feet. Benedict Cumberbatch has brought a quality to Sherlock that has been present throughout all the stories, but has yet remained largely unexplored in his film adaptations…the man is an absolute nutter. He is. He goes to absurd lengths to solve each puzzle that comes his way. He stores severed heads in the refrigerator to keep an eye on their saliva and is not too mature to exert power over the dependant Lestrade. He is egotistical and oddly loveable. He is a precise, unfeeling, caustic and drastically alone.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes treads new ground, shifting from being a misunderstood hero to being the very tarnished knight. We see him through the eyes of the incredible Martin Freeman’s Watson, who is is alternately amazed at Sherlock’s mental capacity, and consistently annoyed at his oddities in the fully-realized difficulties of Sherlock Holmes in the modern world. In fact, the show perfectly walks a dangerously fine line, adapting Sherlock’s idiosyncracies for 21st century-life:
Sherlock: Nicotine patch. Helps me think. Impossible to sustain a smoking habit in London these days. Bad news for brainwork.
Watson: Good news for breathing.
Sherlock: Ah, breathing. Breathing’s boring.
Watson: Is that three patches?
Sherlock: It’s a three-patch problem.
and his new, darker personality. In one especially jarring scene, Sherlock stands over a villain who has just been shot, wanting information. “You’re dying,” he tells the man, “But I still have time to hurt you.” And he does, in an unfliching, brutal way. It works.
He gets what he wants, but we realize we might not get what we want: a tidy Sherlock. In a show that ponders such subjects as post-traumatic stress disorder and the War on Terror, there seems to be an undercurrent of honesty rather than edginess that creates such a thought-provoking, un-Victorian world.
It is a show of oxymorons, balancing subtle development with sharp wit and humor; shockingly real characters with crimes on an increasing level of bizarrety; and most of all, the odd, the genius, the repellent and the fragile in the ever complex man known as Sherlock Holmes.
Hardly elementary after all.