Written by Prof Jenn.
Though to me the best portrayal overall of Sherlock Holmes will always be Jeremy Brett , I thought it’d be fun and instructive to plunge into a comparison between two contemporary portrayals of the famous detective.
Now, I know very well that for many modern Sherlockians, ya either love Sherlock and hate Elementary, or vice-versa. I, however, am approaching these portrayals both as someone who knows how to analyze writing (and who knows my literary Sherlock backwards and forwards), and someone trained in acting, who knows how to analyze performance, and knows what specifically she’s looking at when she looks at a performance. I am not taking sides, merely showing my objective views on two portrayals. So. Here we go:
Back in the days of court jesters, there’d be two kinds of “fool”: those that were known as natural, and those that were artificial. Those that were called “natural” fools were those with some kind of genetic defect: dwarfism, or a developmental disorder, or a mental illness. Those that came to the profession as “artificial” fools were those that were otherwise sound in body and mind, but chose the role: they studied multiple subjects in-depth, they cultivated juggling and acrobatic and improvisation skills, memorized family trees and social gossip, and in all other ways made themselves into the jester.
Though Cumberbatch’s Sherlock tells Watson in ‘The Abominable Bride’ that “No one made me. I made me,” his portrayal is still more on the “natural” Sherlock side of the fence than most other contemporary Holmes portrayals. He is rude to the point of autism spectrum to everyone around him (only learning his way into manners as episodes progress), he gets swept away in his brainwork to an almost trance-like degree, and though we see his fighting skills are competent, it’s his scintillating brain (and his relationship with action-addict Watson) that’s the centre of Cumberbatch’s portrayal. In the books, Holmes is rarely rude to his clients or the Scotland Yarders: he may express impatience briefly, or make a veiled dig at Lestrade whom he knows well, but other than that, he’ll comment aside to Watson that Inspector so-and-so is an imbecile but tenacious as a lobster, but to Inspector so-and-so’s face, he’s all politeness and professionalism.
Not so the Cumberbatch Sherlock– he’ll tell Anderson he’s making an excellent impression of an idiot and slam doors in his face, bark at his clients that they’re boring, and taunt Lestrade with the fact that he missed everything of importance. This seems to work perfectly in the contemporary London setting, somehow, and Freeman’s immensely solid portrayal of Watson only helps. Cumberbatch is an incredibly well-chiselled young man as well (hey, I’m not made of stone), and so his sex-symbol style also is in good alignment with his intense aloofness. That Cumberbatch is classically trained and has experience onstage is apparent as he is able to tackle the most massive of monologues with aplomb, and no amount of complexity of text is too much for him. He also has that live-theatre-actor’s way of having voice and physicality finely tuned and in sync together.
Elementary’s Sherlock, Miller is more the artificial fool than the natural, though he has moments of twitchy eccentricity in his posture and vocal inflection. This Sherlock isn’t nearly as socially inept as Cumberbatch’s, though he dwells in the same contemporary time period (a different city, though: New York instead of London). He has sex with women, talks to Watson about her relationships and their own friendship, and shows depth of character in his dealing with his addiction and the friends he’s made since coming to New York. Miller’s Sherlock works closely with the NYPD as consultant: Detective Bell and Captain Gregson may be left behind when Sherlock is on a scent, but he always catches them up with respect, lets them do their jobs (for the most part), and, like Doyle’s Holmes, often plops piles of evidence into the official police’s hands, to let them take care of the essentials.
What sets Miller’s Sherlock apart from especially Cumberbatch’s is his vulnerability, his humanity. Not only have we met brother Mycroft in this series, but father Morland as well, leading to many backstories and humanizing of what Doyle’s Watson called “a calculating machine.” His relationship with Adler/Moriarty and especially Watson have put the character through real emotional journeys through the show’s four seasons, and his working through addiction, into sobriety, struggling with the contemporary treatment program, gives him a vulnerability that works perfectly with his superhuman powers of the brain. Like Doyle’s Holmes, too, he explains to Watson at every turn how he makes his leaps of logic, why he engages in the odd habits he does, and etc. Liu’s Watson, like Freeman’s, is solid as a rock, too–in fact, she starts out as this Sherlock’s sober companion, and so already we’ve got a Watson who is the person upon whom Sherlock can most rely.
Miller, too, is classically trained and has much experience on the live stage. In this case, it shows in his immense energy, his impeccable physicality–he obviously has a series of specific psychological gestures and habits he has cultivated particularly for this role. The scripts for Elementary aren’t nearly as complex as those in Sherlock, mainly because the one is a British series with three 90-minute “episodes” (read: movies) per series, while the other is an American police procedural with at least 20 episodes per season. Perforce the characters will be different because the writing has to be so. But methinks they both are very well done overall.
Anyone see the stage production of Frankenstein that both Cumberbatch and Miller traded leads in? If they did that with their Sherlock Holmeses, the contrast of both men’s styles would be enlightening to see…
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