Sherlock Holmes: Five Best Portrayals

With the news that the BBCs very popular Sherlock will not return to our screens with series four until 2016, this leaves us plenty of time to seek out other portrayals of one of the most famous literary characters ever created; Sherlock Holmes. The London-based consulting detective first appeared in 1887, created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes has appeared in 56 short stories and 4 novels. Along with his friend and sidekick Dr. John Watson, Holmes uses reason and deduction to solve a variety of cases.

Sherlock Holmes personality has been explored many times, but his character is of someone who borders on arrogant, but who is also usually correct and manages to outwit his contemporaries. Although shown as cold and uninterested in people, he is close to John Watson, who is his only friend. Many actors have put their own stamp on the Holmes character, and each have managed to portray him in a different way whilst still holding onto the main characteristics of Sherlock Holmes.

This countdown will let us take a look at five of my favourite portrayals of Sherlock Holmes.

5. Nicol Williamson

In a mostly forgotten Sherlock Holmes portrayal, Nicol Williamson played Holmes in the 1976 filmThe Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Written by Nicholas Meyer, and based on his 1974 novel, the film follows Holmes and Watson as they travel to Vienna to meet Sigmund Freud in order to cure Holmes of his cocaine addiction. Williamson was always known as a troubled man who was plagued with many issues, but he was also an excellent actor. Williamson manages to bring these qualities to his portrayal of Holmes, and plays the character as a deeply troubled man who is dealing with many issues. In an on set interview, Williamson said; “If you don’t like my Sherlock Holmes, maybe you don’t like me.” Williamson plays Holmes with such desperation that you could believe that you are truly watching a real man falling apart. A hidden gem among the many Sherlock Holmes films.

4. Basil Rathbone

An early portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, but one of the most famous, Basil Rathbone played Holmes from 1939 until 1946 in fourteen films. Rathbone embodies the version of Holmes that the books describe, and Rathbone was also friends with Nigel Bruce who plays Dr. Watson before they were both cast. This allows for their relationship on-screen to looks as authentic as their close friendship off-screen was. Eventually, Rathbone became disillusioned with the role and felt typecast, and quit after seven years. Rathbone often said of the role “the first picture was, as it were, a negative from which I merely continued to produce endless positives of the same photograph.” This doesn’t take anything away from the fact that Rathbone gives one of the finest performances of Holmes.

3. Robert Downey Jr.

A modern re-telling of the story, but set in Victorian Britain. Robert Downey Jr. is an openly arrogant character in his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. He is less troubled and more self-absorbed in this version, but this contrasts perfectly with the Jude Law portrayal of Dr. Watson, who is more soft and caring. Both show opposite ends of the spectrum in their relationship, but both work together so well. A more Americanised version of Holmes, but still an entertaining portrayal on-screen.

2. Robert Stephens

Perhaps the best portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in film, Robert Stephens is excellent as the super sleuth in the Billy Wilder 1970 comedy-drama, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. This film has Wilder’s touch all over it, including his humour and style of writing. In a portrayal of Holmes which is very similar to the Cumberbatch version, but with slightly softer edges, Stephens plays the role with humour and charm, making Holmes very witty and almost someone you would want to have as your friend. There is often the hint that Holmes is homosexual in this version, and Wilder has often stated in later years that he wishes he had the courage to make Holmes openly gay in the film. A charming Sherlock Holmes film.

1. Benedict Cumberbatch

The most recent portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, and currently the most popular; Benedict Cumberbatch has managed to bring his own characteristics to his version of Holmes. As it is set in the present day, this updated version shows us Holmes in the modern world, with gadgets and technology to be used in his favour. Cumberbatch plays the role with a hint of sadness that always leaves the audience wondering what it underneath the exterior that Holmes portrays. Cumberbatch himself has also said that his Holmes may be slightly autistic. Appearing to be unsympathetic and self-absorbed, Holmes friendship with Dr. Watson is shown to be very strong, which produces a great relationship on-screen. A very popular version of Sherlock Holmes, and an excellent version to watch.

Many wonderful actors who have played Sherlock Holmes have been missed from this countdown, but honourable mentions should be given to fan favourites Jeremy Brett, whose portrayal of the character in the 1984 TV series formed the basis for many future performances of the character, and Vasily Livanov, whose portrayal in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson was also brilliant. Johnny Lee Miller, Douglas Wilmer, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and a few more very early portrayals of the character also narrowly missed the top five, but there is no doubt that the listed five are among the best Sherlock Holmes portrayals on-screen. If you wish to seek out more Sherlock Holmes films, then there is no better place to start than with this countdown.

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About writingsuzanne

History graduate. Freelance writer and reviewer. Passionate about film, theatre and music (film soundtracks!).
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