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The Case for Benedict Cumberbatch as the Greatest On-Screen Sherlock

The Case for Benedict Cumberbatch as the Greatest On-Screen Sherlock

Who is the greatest on-screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes? It’s a complicated question — acting can be difficult enough to quantify even without the challenge of taking on the most frequently portrayed fictional character in the history of film and television. Each Holmes has had to compete with and be compared to the ones before him, going back to the anonymous actor who starred in the first Holmes film in 1900, a silent 30-second short from Arthur Marvin.

Of the dozens of actors to take on the role in the over a century since, a few have been truly outstanding, like Basil Rathbone, to whom the highly entertaining cycle of Holmes films in the 1930s and ’40s owe nearly everything. Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of the character on British TV starting in 1984 is widely considered definitive — Brett researched the canonical Holmes meticulously to that end. So I don’t mean it as a slight to either Rathbone or Brett or anyone else who’s played the iconic detective when I say that the greatest performance as Sherlock Holmes is in fact that of Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the BBC’s “Sherlock,” the second series finale of which aired here in the United States last night.

Cumberbatch benefits greatly from the approach taken by “Sherlock” creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, Holmes fans who aimed to free the character from what they felt was a paralyzing traditionalism in adaptations. By setting the show in present-day London, they’ve found a way of getting at who Holmes is as a character, giving everyone from the writers to the designers to the actor playing the role the opportunity to focus on who Holmes is, rather than who he has been. While the idea is a fine one, without an adept and delicate execution the whole enterprise would come across as a self-consciously clever literary trick, a game of “how many Holmes references can we fit in one episode,” or, worse, a cynical concession to modern audiences’ disinterest in history and literature.

Fortunately, Moffat and Gatiss’ “Sherlock” is carried off with remarkable skill, with every creative level of the show combining holistically to create a vivid portrait of Sherlock Holmes as a fully developed person, and not just a bundle of costume choices and famous phrases. Not to downplay the excellence of Cumberbatch’s work, but great performances don’t exist on an island. “Sherlock” is constructed so that the audience sees what Holmes sees, with creative use of camerawork, editing and computer-generated effects. Even establishing shots are selectively blurred to pull focus to one particular area of the shot, as a nod to Holmes’ powers of observation.

As for Cumberbatch’s performance, his physicality is a delight — he alternates between furious activity and catatonic stillness, seeming to be in motion even when still and to exist in a series of meticulously constructed tableaux when in motion. His Holmes is introduced to Martin Freeman’s Watson as a potential flatmate, and proceeds to do an eerily accurate (and signaturely Holmesian) job of sizing Watson up based on a handful of physical details, with the ironic capper of mistaking “Harry” for Watson’s brother, when in fact it’s short for Harriet. Cumberbatch’s Holmes explodes forth with extremely rapid bursts of text when itemizing his observations, his tone an exquisite mix of rigorously academic precision, dry wit, and an almost sensual pleasure in the befuddled awe on the faces of his audiences.

Over the course of the first three-episodes series, we saw many displays of Holmes’ practically supernatural deductive reasoning, as well as his near-complete inability to deal with any other aspect of reality other than his work. Cumberbatch balances Holmes’ investigative genius and his social illiteracy with casual perfection. The fact that he manages to charm and compel in the same beat as he exasperates — as when he crashes Watson’s date with Sarah (Zoe Telford) — and that it feels inevitable that he does so, is a measure of his performance’s quality.

His chemistry with Freeman is also noteworthy; with the latter giving a true supporting performance as well as the odd timely reminder to Holmes that there are other people in the world, people whose value extends beyond being an audience for the detective’s brilliance.

The way Cumberbatch handles these reminders is one of Sherlock’s better running jokes, as he always has some tiny pause or facial twitch to indicate that the moment has registered. And he does learn from these reminders, building to a beautiful blip of a moment in last night’s episode, “The Reichenbach Fall”: after Holmes is arrested, Watson gets himself arrested as well as a sign of solidarity, and for the briefest moment, the corner of Cumberbatch’s mouth twitches. It’s a subtle gesture that revealed that, for all Holmes’ belittling Watson’s intellect and personal life, he genuinely loves his friend — and all in the blink of an eye.

That moment is also a culmination of one of the second series’ new developments in Holmes’ character: fallibility. This idea is introduced with, in keeping with the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, the character of Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), one of the few to ever best the sleuth. Here a (controversially) highly sexual manipulator, Irene Adler flusters Holmes and completely nullifies his ability to get an initial read on her by introducing herself to him in the nude.

Cumberbatch manages to convey the sadly plausible possibility that Holmes may never have had sex before this idea is introduced in dialogue, but doesn’t overplay it. The second-most compelling visual in the scene — besides the obvious — is the way in which Cumberbatch can actually be seen repressing his sexual confusion, in contrast to Watson’s reaction, which Freeman plays as the much more normal “hetero male confronted with staggeringly beautiful nude woman,” by averting his gaze and attempting not to leer.

While the next episode, “The Hounds of Baskerville,” is arguably the series’ weakest, suffering from some suspension-of-disbelief issues and a weak ending, it features a fascinating development in the character of Holmes: his first experience with fear. Cumberbatch plays the scene with the added element of being afraid of being afraid, bringing audiences, having heretofore only known Holmes to be emotionless to the point of autism, into his fear with him. He recovers, but it’s a jarring moment that leads into the climactic final (so far) installment, wherein Holmes confronts his nemesis, the diabolical Moriarty.

“The Reichenbach Fall” features Cumberbatch’s most delicate balancing act yet, his apparently downfall at the hands of Moriarty (the genuinely terrifying Andrew Scott). Someone as self-possessed as Holmes does not unravel easily, and to play that process convincingly requires tremendous skill. Watching Cumberbatch hit not a single false note the entire episode, building toward a very emotional final phone conversation with Watson that both actors play beautifully, is a particular delight, with a final shot that sets up a cliffhanger for the third series so good it almost physically hurts.

“Sherlock” is more than just Benedict Cumberbatch’s show, but it would be nowhere near as compelling without his lead performance. The elements of Sherlock Holmes that tend to get buried underneath his cultural iconography come vividly alive in the actor’s portrayal: his intelligence as a complex quality rather than a set of magic tricks; the alienation that comes with genius; the way that alienation can manifests itself in turning to drugs (in this case, nicotine and a never-named but assumed nod to Holmes’ famous affinity for cocaine); the lack of any but the most transient intimacy; and of course the way in which all these characteristics connect organically to each other. On “Sherlock,” Holmes’ traits never feel as though they’re items ticked off a list compiled from the Conan Doyle stories in Cumberbatch’s hands. He does the near-impossible in allowing us to think of Sherlock Holmes as a real person — and for that alone, Benedict Cumberbatch deserves a salute as the greatest Holmes that ever graced the screen.

[Go HERE for Indiewire’s interview with Cumberbatch.]

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Wonderful article. Bendict cumberbatch truly depicts real holmes

p gannon

Basil Rathbone wasTHE best, next Arthur wontner &jeremy Brett, CUM is amere PRETENDER


This is probably my favorite series and I even watched all three seasons in one day. Haha weirdo, but Benedict Cumberbatch impressed me with his way of portraying Sherlock. Benedict may be handsome, but the Sherlock that he expressed was very outstanding in my opinion. The fact that the character, Sherlock, himself can advance and develop so little, but create such impact brings me at awe. I love this series for its great character development and action, and I can’t wait until season 4 is released.


Sherlock is a ridiculous sociopath who does not allow himself to love people. He lost his dog red beard as a kid and his brother has never let him forget that. Whenever sherlock seems to be letting people into his live and love him his brother reminds him to watch out and not get attached. This is why Sherlock is so alone and is shocked that someone like John would ever care about him. It is because if his brother that he has never found love but he is learning to let people in, thanks to John. Just thought I would point this out to everyone!


Moffat made the comment who knows about Sherlock and sex..he's not sure himself if he's a virgin. There may of been someone in school he was involved with and there's a chance he was hurt badly by her and then he definitely found his calling as a detective and everything else was gone because he can't have anything interfere with his work Just closed down that part of his life.
After all – when he was a boy he wanted to be a pirate.
There were 3 Theatre awards this past year and when you have actors playing the same roles every other night it's difficult to give the award to just one…2 of them were for both Jonny and Benedict..the the 3rd one went to Benedict alone.
This is Benedict's 4th Bafta nomination – going back to "Hawking". Everyone nominated in the categories are worthy of being nominated, but not sure why the people voting did not give him the Bafta last year, was it too popular? Did he get too popular? We've got the awards this year on Sunday and who knows how it will turn out but he deserves it.


For me, hands-down it's the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes. I always side with classic versions, but this BBC version blows everything out of the water. It's the best TV I've seen in…ever!!


Set in the period Doyle was familiar with the definitive on screen Holmes is Brett, hands down his portrayal is the best. For a modern take on Holmes, Cumberbach does a good job especially with the help of some very creative screenplays. I thought the first season was better than the second I hope if it continues they go to original story telling for modern times


Jonny Lee Miller jointly won the Oliver Award as Best Actor with Benedict for their performances in Frankenstein; then it must means that no one can compare or judge Jonny's performance in Elementary according to GUEST's comment below. Roger Allam, who is Benedict's co star in the BBC radio show Cabin Pressure and the upcoming BBC/HBO series Parade's End, won three Oliver awards (one as the supporting actor and the other two are as the leading actor), and based on the same logic, if next year Benedict is up against Roger Allam in the Best Actor category of Olivier Awards, he mustn't win because Roger is definitely in an even higher league since he has won three times. And, Benedict didn't win the BAFTA last year for his performance in Sherlock. Winning awards doesn't mean that winner is in a different league and losing doesn't mean that actor is not in the same league. Benedict is a humble person and stays classy to his co stars and peers; it surprises me how often I see some of his fans' behaviors going in the totally opposite way.


Here's a wonderful article on what makes Cumberbatch's Sherlock so special.

I agree with the popmatters article saying that in this version the plots are a cipher of the main character. "The sleuthing stories are transport; Sherlock Holmes is the one being solved. "

No previous actors have dug as deep as Cumberbatch or needed to because the plot was still the main focus. In this version he is a "conundrum waiting to be solved" and all the more fascinating because of it.


The Sherlock fandom is always so ratty. Ancient old fans of Rathbone or Brett come out of the woodwork to slag off this new version. Why not head over to Elementary and have a go at them. (Give them time I suppose). Cumberbatch is a great actor, he's won the Olivier, he's been nominated many times for the BAFTA. He really is in a different league to the others.


God, so many of these comments are just insulting other comments. We're pretty much all here because we love Benedict; can't we all just be friends?


Wow, look at some comments, I thought this article is featuring Robert Pattinson and Twilight. Anyways, agreed that Cumberbatch benefits GREATLY from the modern-day setting and the writing, this version of Holmes does not stray too far away from ACD’s Holmes, but is also the most emotionally complex one among other versions, hence Cumberbatch did have more to do than his predecessors, and so far he pulled off Sherlock stunningly. TBF, Freeman and Scott benefit from the setting and writing as well and they all did great great jobs. As a Trekkie, I’m looking forward to Cumberbatch’s take on the villain in Star Trek sequel (why the hell is it so difficult for the movie to have a title?) and maybe next year this time, comments on Cumberbatch’s performance in the movie would be more balanced by joining of geeks and fanboys.


That's it – you believe Sherlock is a real person. It feels like an actor isn't playing him because it's actually Sherlock (if that makes sense).
Hollywood is sometimes brought up as with "Star Trek" and how he looks in that. And that's the point, he is suppose to look like that. In whatever he does next, he will look like however the character is to look like and then in early January he will once again look like Sherlock.
The BAFTAS are coming up and this is his 4th nomination and please finally give it to him because he deserves it!
Yes, charisma and having the talent to go with it. You see a number of actors who are very good and do their roles well but they aren't more than that. He has such a depth.
One of the moments I loved in the 3rd episode was the meeting with "Brooks" and all this going on about he was an actor and Sherlock just stands there looking at him with this small but changing look on his face and his amazement as he goes on with the lies he is telling.
Benedict doesn't have to say a word and you know exactly what is going on.


In whole honesty, the show is too young to be compared with the classics such as Rathbone or Brett. I grew up with Brett's portrayal and I guess he's the "default" Holmes to me. At the same time, it's impossible to compare these different portrayals, since the nature of BBC Sherlock is different than, say, Brett's show. Granada series was perfecting the canon; BBC Sherlock is a deconstruction. In that sense, Brett was playing ACD's Sherlock Holmes; Cumberbatch has a task of reinventing Sherlock AND be Sherlock at the same time.

For this reason, I wouldn't compare actors and performances because I truly, honestly think it's not as much unfair as it is impossible to do.

However, I must say that Benedict Cumberbatch's amazing performance is something special. After only fifteen minutes of the first episode, you simply KNOW this portrayal of Sherlock is unforgettable. Cumberbatch's Sherlock will be remembered and you won't be able to skip his portrayal any more than you're able to skip Rathbone or Brett.


Oh geez, these comments are all in good fun; I don't think that they're enough to call a person shallow or accuse them of being incapable of separating an actor from a role he plays! But maybe that's just me.


The brilliant Mr Cumberbatch commits himself totally to his acting roles and I agree that his Sherlock seems to actually exist as a person. He makes you care so much about this strange, charismatic and vulnerable man he's created, that it physically hurts.


Very insightful interview. As the Hollywood reporter did such a poor cut and paste article on what future projects Cumberbatch has coming up perhaps Indiewire could do a more indepth one with real news.


A great, insightful article, but one thing jarred a bit – maybe because I'm asexual myself. Why would it be sad if Sherlock never had sex – which I think is pretty clearly established by Mycroft's comment in Buckingham palace? He clearly expresses in ASiP (well, maybe not as clearly as in the unaired pilot where he says that "everything else [but his brain] is transport") that he has no interest in those activities whatsoever, so I don't see why it would be so tragic for him not to have done something he doesn't even want to do. Sex isn't the most important thing in the World for all people, you know!


Benedict's role is far more difficult than previous actors have had to portray. Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson have created some great scenes for Benedict to get his teeth into. He's done wonders with the role. Previous actors have not had scripts to test them so its hard to say how good they could have been. Sherlock is a perfect marriage of actor , scriptwriters and directors.


I liked Cushing a lot. I also loved Caine's parody. But to each his own right?


Cumberbatch makes me care about the character. No other actor has done that. He is a great actor.

Julian Grant

Must commend you on your astute obervations. I take unction with the reader who has the gall to attack Martin Freeman. He does a wonderful job as Watson and his grief and loss is palatable at the end of last nights episode. Long may they both appear in this most dynamic of interpretations.


Best article I've read about Sherlock, and I have read a lot !! Brilliant analysis of this amazing series. Benedict Cumberbatch's graceful and "dancing" performance is stunning (and very sexy as well…). Hope he will soon get rid of those puffy Hollywood muscles and recover his slender grace for Series 3 !!


While Cumberbatch certainly makes quite a good Sherlock for the modern Holmes, There's a heck of a lot more to the depth of Brett's portrayal of deduction as he slowly puts his thought process together while studying lets say something like the battered Derby in the Blue Carbuncle, as opposed to Cumberbatch running off facts as fast as he can like a computer….I realize that's no doubt the idea……but it's not Doyle's character. Benedict runs third for me after Brett and Rathbone.


Thank god for Cumberbatch because Martin Freeman is seriously over rated as Watson in this series. He couldnt even muster a tear in that final episode. It was embarrassing seeing him try to get emotional without a tear in sight. Cumberbatch brings the weight and emotional resonance to the series.


Perfect dissection of his acting. Cumberbatch is one of the greatest. He's truly brilliant.


While I like Brett's interpretation Cumberbatch gives a more complex performance and one thats continually developing. Its like watching an artist at work. I cant wait to see what he and Moffat will bring to series 3. Where will the character go next. Cumberbatch's talent is limitless so I'm excited to see how far he can take the role.


And barely any mention of Basil Rathbone's definitive portrayal?


Cumberbatch is the epitome of a LEAD actor. Extremely charismatic and an actor at the top of his game. Occasionally you come across an actor who has charisma but lacks the technical skill to do justice to the most difficult roles but Cumberbatch has the charisma and the skill. Its a heady mix. Sherlock gives him the opportunity to show off both elements to perfection.


The moment I saw Benedict in series 1 I was hooked. He always gives such a multi layered performance in any role he's in. Sherlock is no different from any of his other roles. They are all this good.


I think I love you Danny Bowes. What a lovely article and you are spot in in your analysis.


I'm also hoping one day he'll be the actor giving the best performance in a Marvel film. He must be Ant man. He really must.


The series would not be compelling without Cumberbatch. Moffat is getting all the awards but the series rests on Cumberbatch's shoulders. He's an incredible actor. The most exciting actor working today


I had to laugh at the comment about Downey's accurate performance. Hilarious. The performance is a cartoon character. All show no substance.


Fantastic review and as someone who thinks Cumberbatch is the greatest actor in the world I would obviously agree with your comments


"Irene Adler flusters Holmes and completely nullifies his ability to get an initial read on her by introducing herself to him in the nude."
And there you go with one of the flaws in the series: it's inconceivable that the C19th Holmes–who could not only deduce people's professions from their fingertips but spent a lot of time in morgues–would be unable to read anything at all from a naked body, let alone that of a working girl. Like many of the conceits in Sherlock it's flashy but ultimately hollow and owes more to G.K. Chesterton than Doyle.
As entertaining as Sherlock is, Cumberbatch isn't the greatest Holmes ever because he's not really a modern Holmes at all but rather an avatar of Chesterton's Horne Fisher, the Man Who Knew Too Much.


So true… What a fantastic series – excellent in all aspects, from writing, directing, music, cinematography and production. And the acting… Incredible! Martin Freemen and the entire supporting cast is superb… But for me (a major Sherlock Holmes fan and lover of Jeremy Brett's portrayal) Benedict Cumberbatch is, indeed, the greatest, most compelling Sherlock Holmes ever.


Great article, you summed it up perfectly: "He does the near-impossible in allowing us to think of Sherlock Holmes as a real person — and for that alone, Benedict Cumberbatch deserves a salute as the greatest Holmes that ever graced the screen."


Great article.

""Sherlock" is more than just Benedict Cumberbatch's show, but it would be nowhere near as compelling without his lead performance. "
No truer words have been spoken.


ahem, no mention of the wonderful and talented Robert Downey Jr.'s accurate and fantastic portrayal?


Although Benedict is very good, Jeremy Brett is clearly the better Holmes. For anyone who has ever read the stories, there can be no doubt.

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