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Film: The many faces of Sherlock Holmes


Jittery and lovable: Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes

Jittery and lovable: Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes

Jittery and lovable: Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes

For most film-goers, Sir Ian McKellen will always be synonymous with JRR Tolkien's wily magician Gandalf, whom he's played six times in Peter Jackson's hugely successful Lord of the Rings/Hobbit franchise. But in a new Anglo-American film that opened here yesterday, McKellen takes on the role of legendary detective Sherlock Holmes.

The conceit of Mr Holmes is simple: it's 1947, and the celebrated sleuth has survived into great old age, outliving both enemies and friends, and even his beloved friend Doctor John Watson. He's a spry 93, and lives in a farmhouse in deepest Sussex with his housekeeper, Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son.

Holmes tends his beehives and reflects on his long and tumultuous life, but is troubled by his failing memory and his inability to recall the details of a particularly tragic case. And when he uses an ancient Japanese remedy to jog his memory, he soon begins to wish he hadn't.

Though perfectly watchable, Mr Holmes feels more like a TV movie than cinema, but Ian McKellen gives a thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of a man whose arrogance and intellectual vanity can no longer shield him from the hard realities of ageing, and death. To the usual Holmes flourish, McKellen adds regret, remorse, even a touch of self-doubt, an interesting interpretation of a character that's been played by dozens of actors in more than 200 movies and TV dramas over the years.

Holmes' enduring appeal is extraordinary, and when Arthur Conan Doyle first dreamt him up for a magazine story in 1886, he could hardly have imagined that Holmes would still be a multimedia star almost 130 years later.

Indeed Conan Doyle made strenuous attempts to get rid of the character he felt was keeping "my mind from better things", throwing him and his nemesis Moriarty off the Reichenbach Falls in his 1893 story The Final Problem. But the deafening public outcry eventually forced him to relent, and resurrect Holmes for perhaps his most famous adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

That last story has been adapted at least 20 times for TV and film, but then practically every Holmes story Arthur Conan Doyle wrote has been turned into a drama of some sort. As early as the 1890s, American actor-manager William Gillette collaborated with Conan Doyle on a four-act Broadway play, and portrayed Holmes as a languid patrician who puffed impatiently on his pipe as he waited for Watson to cop on.

In 1916, Gillette starred as the detective in a silent film called Sherlock Holmes that has since sadly been lost. But by that stage, a number of other Holmes films had already appeared. The first of these was probably Sherlock Holmes Baffled, a brief 1900 short in which the detective is thwarted by a disappearing burglar.

With his grand mannerisms and quirky, standoffish persona, Holmes was an intensely theatrical creation, and was often played in early films by celebrated stage actors. John Barrymore interrupted his acclaimed Broadway run as Hamlet in 1922 to play the detective in Sherlock Holmes, a Hollywood picture co-starring a young William Powell as Moriarty.

West End actor Eille Norwood holds the record for having played Holmes most frequently: he appeared as Sherlock in 45 two-reelers and two feature films between 1921 and 1923, and Arthur Conan Doyle praised his "wonderful impersonation of Holmes".

But the absence of sound and dialogue was a real impediment to capturing the essence of a character whose infuriating superciliousness could hardly be conveyed by captions on a screen. After the transition to sound in the late 1920s, Clive Brook, Raymond Massey and Arthur Wontner starred as Holmes in feature-length dramas, but all would be quickly forgotten once Basil Rathbone donned the cape and deerstalker for the first time in 1939.

Born in South Africa and raised in England, Rathbone learned his trade doing Shakespeare in repertory and moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. There he specialised in playing oily villains, most memorably opposite Errol Flynn in swashbucklers like Captain Blood, and seemed doomed to remain a sneering baddie until producer Gene Markey cast him in a 1939 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Tall, lean, long-faced and patrician, Rathbone certainly looked the part, and bossed his way through Baskervilles with great authority, hindered in his endeavours by his blundering assistant Dr Watson. English character actor Nigel Bruce took on that thankless role, and would do so 13 more times with Rathbone in a Holmes series that ran for eight years and proved very successful.

Hound of the Baskervilles was definitely the best of them, though The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) and The Scarlet Claw (1944) weren't at all bad either. But for Holmes purists, the Rathbone/Bruce films are problematic: first of all, most of them were made on B-picture budgets, and looked it.

Then there's the ludicrous sight of the curiously unaged Victorian gentleman Holmes chasing Nazis in films like Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942). But worst of all is the cartoonish and oversimplified dynamic between Watson and Holmes.

In the original stories, John Watson was a capable and resourceful man, a war hero, medic and author who's Sherlock's faithful friend, ally and sometimes his sternest critic. But the Nigel Bruce version was an irredeemable dunderhead, a certifiable idiot who'd get lost in his own house and didn't even seem to know what day it was.

He was the butt of cheap laughs, and was constantly patronised by Rathbone's Holmes, who called him "my dear fellow" while laughing down his patrician nose at his stupidity. And Rathbone's Holmes was a safe and sanitised Hollywood version, too bland and mannerly and apparently no longer a drug addict. More interesting portrayals would emerge in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Hammer Studios has never exactly been the mark of quality, but in 1959 they produced one of the finest Holmes films of all. The Hound of the Baskervilles starred Peter Cushing as a particularly deprived-looking Sherlock, and André Morell co-starred as a very capable Watson in a film that really caught the lurid gothic overtones of Conan Doyle's novel.

A Study in Terror (1965) and Murder by Decree (1979) both set Holmes on the trail of Jack the Ripper, but in the 1976 film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution Sherlock's greatest enemy was himself. Based on a novel by Nicholas Meyer, Herbert Ross's film starred Robert Duvall as Dr Watson, who becomes convinced that Holmes (a wonderfully unhinged Nicol Williamson) is deluded and paranoid as a result of cocaine addiction, and tricks him into going to Switzerland to be analysed by Sigmund Freud.

Billy Wilder's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) is similarly playful, and had Holmes (Robert Stephens) claim to be Watson's gay lover in order to avoid the amorous advances of a Russian ballerina.

Watson took centre stage in the enjoyably silly 1988 film Without a Clue, with Ben Kingsley playing the good doctor, a very successful author who created Holmes and uses the imaginary character as a cover to solve real crimes. But when his public demands to meet the great detective, Watson hires a drunken actor called Kincaid (Michael Caine) to play him.

George C Scott was really good playing a man who imagines he's Sherlock Holmes in the 1971 film They Might Be Giants, and Robert Downey took on the Holmes mantle with great aplomb in two recent Guy Ritchie updates (see panel). But, for me, the best Holmes of all was Jeremy Brett, the English classical actor who appeared in 41 episodes of a 1980s' Granada TV series, as well as a TV film.

Lithe and cat-like, Brett brought tremendous grace and perception to his portrayal of a character who suffered from fits of despondency and depression, took drugs to allay his boredom, despised stupidity and always seemed on the verge of being spectacularly rude to someone.

While the production values of that TV show may have aged badly, Brett's performance most certainly has not, and it's hard to believe he didn't influence Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes in the recent BBC series Sherlock.

Downey vs Cumberbatch

Five years ago two new adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories appeared that radically reinterpreted the character of Holmes. In late 2009, Guy Ritchie teamed up with Robert Downey Jr to make Sherlock Holmes, a fast-paced, comic 'steam-punk' re-imagining of the detective's adventures in Victorian London. Downey seemed an unlikely choice to play the austere sleuth, but in fact the film was a lot of fun, cleverly written and full of high-kicking action. An entertaining sequel, A Game of Shadows, was released in 2012.

Meanwhile, on the small screen, writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat had shifted Holmes to the internet age in the clever BBC series Sherlock. Martin Freeman played John Watson, a soldier who returns from a tour in Afghanistan and rents a room in the flat of a reclusive weirdo called Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch). They become friends, and collaborate on a series of cases, using smartphones and computers to help get their man. Cumberbatch's Sherlock is a wonderful creation, callous, selfish and staggeringly self-absorbed, and probably closer to the spirit of Conan Doyle's stories than Downey's more jittery and lovable Holmes.

Indo Review