In Pursuit of the Perfect Sherlock Holmes

Holmes is an endlessly adapted and adaptable character, but sometimes there's a version that just feels exactly like what you want.

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Jul 13 2018, 11:00am

One of Sidney Paget's original illustrations for Conan Doyle's short stories.

The day before this heat wave began, we had an eerily dark and rainy day and it felt like just the kind of day to sit inside and watch a Sherlock Holmes movie. That decision set up another, more difficult one: Which Sherlock Holmes adaptation should we watch?

Mind you, I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong answer here (there are even a couple episodes of Sherlock that you can unironically enjoy without necessarily being contemptible in your taste and your politics). There are a lot of great Holmes adaptations out there that are great because of how well they bring the Conan Doyle stories to life (the Jeremy Brett series for Granada Television is probably the best version of this) while there are others that are great because of how they reimagine and reinterpret the stories ( Elementary). Some days, you might just be in the mood to watch The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and while that movie is never going to deliver the Billy Wilder-Sherlock Holmes movie of my dreams, I understand the impulse.

There’s a Galaxy Quest option here as well: Without a Clue is a criminally overlooked comedy starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley. It has a better handle on its source material than just about any straight-faced adaptation could ever manage. Its conceit is that Holmes is a flimsy, tedious character without any hidden depths because the real crime-solving genius is Dr. Watson, who invents Holmes as a temporary marketing gimmick and recruits a washed-up Michael Caine to play him. To his dismay, the character proves wildly successful and Watson finds himself the dull sidekick to his own invention.

A scene from 'Without a Clue'

In this telling, every shoddy narrative trope the stories employ, every pompous speech about deductive reasoning, is as insufferable as it seems. But every time those words are put in the mouth of Michael Caine’s make-believe Sherlock, people eat it up and his stature as a British national hero increases. On some level, Without a Clue comprehends that the stories are at once mediocre and wonderful, and brokers a peace between those two understandings.

In the end, I went with Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, which I admit is an unwieldy title for one of the most tightly-paced Holmes movies around. But it was a truly Holmesian day—with driving rain at first and then a pea-soup fog pressing against the windows—and Silk Stocking is tailor-made for just such a day. To mask what feels like a very limited budget, the film employs almost unheard-levels of fog and smoke to fill its sets and locations. But the main attraction is Rupert Everett, who plays Holmes as a man forever poised at the top of a downward spiral, a sleuthing rockstar who knows he’s losing his battles against addiction and depression but is forever hopeful that he can keep it together for one last adventure.

Rupert Everett as Sherlock Holmes, courtesy of the BBC

While the Talented Asshole Detective with Issues is a stock character that probably needs to die, Everett carries it off so beautifully that I still find his haunted, restless performance mesmerizing. It’s also got an amazing supporting performance from Helen McCrory, who gives us the most entertaining version of Mrs. Watson I think we’ve ever seen, and a Fassbender so creepy that he makes his Prometheus character positively well-adjusted in comparison.

What about you? When you’re in the mood for some detective fiction starring Holmes and Watson, what’s your favorite go-to? What specific movie or episode best delivers on what you want, and why?

Let me know in today’s open thread!

This article originally appeared on Waypoint.

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