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

By Danny Bowes | Indiewire May 21, 2012 at 10:03AM

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.
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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.

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"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.]

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, PBS







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