That moment in the first episode of Series 3 of Sherlock, when Holmes presented himself to Watson in the restaurant, was a beautiful example of two of Britain’s finest film actors working at the absolute top of their craft.
In the scene John has been suffering terrible grief for two years following his friends apparent death and Sherlock has totally misjudged how to play the reunion. Benedict Cumberbatch, usually seen doing brooding and serious, is giving an adept comedy performance and Martin Freeman, better known for humorous roles, is simultaneously and totally convincingly portraying confusion, sadness, disappointment, disbelief and anger. It is a brilliant piece of television and the way the two men work it is superb.
Sherlock gives both Cumberbatch and Freeman their best roles but clearly there is more to these boys’ résumés and neither of them are destined to spend their careers under the cloud of a performance that eclipses everything else they could ever hope to do. (As happened with Cary Elwes and Matthew Broderick after The Princess Bride and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off respectively.) It isn’t the only mark of success but the Benedict Cumberbatch film Star Trek Into Darkness for example which is currently sitting at number ten in the list of highest grossing films of 2013 and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a film that features him and Martin Freeman, is snapping at its heels at number eleven. It is also nice to see two British actors building a career purely on talent rather than looks, although Benedict Cumberbatch did top Empire Magazine’s list of 100 sexiest male film stars last year. (Proof that smart guys are attractive?)
Cumberbatch wasn’t particularly well known before Sherlock so the show really has launched his career. He had obviously done a few bits of telly though, including episodes of Spooks and Heartbeat, and there was a TV movie where he played Stephen Hawking that might be worth searching out too. (Cumberbatch is featured in the recent biographical documentary feature Hawking talking about this film and it allowed him to offer some real insights into what it must have been like for the man learning to live with such a severe disability.)
Benedict Cumberbatch did give performances that were both memorable and noticeable in the movies Starter for 10 and Atonement. These roles ran the risk of pushing him toward a career playing weasely bad guys but was sweet as Mary Boleyn’s husband William Carey in The Other Boleyn Girl. It was the securing the role as The Great Detective though that showed he could play both mean and heroic, and at exactly the same time too.
Sherlock Holmes has always been a fantastic character, first making the jump from page to screen one hundred years ago, and in his contemporary portrayal Cumberbatch has owned the role better than dozens of actors who have tried it before him. The ones to beat are Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone but the list includes other familiar names such as Rupert Everett, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Michael Caine, Peter O’Toole, Tom Baker, John Cleese and of course Robert Downey Jnr. This is exulted company and Cumberbatch arguably tops them all. Interestingly there is another modern TV version of Sherlock Holmes currently being produced in the states. It has Jonny Lee Miller in the title role with Lucy Liu as Joan Watson. I’ve heard the show, Elementary, is actually quite good and in any other decade I’d have checked it out. I wonder it came up in conversation when Cumberbatch and Miller starred on stage together, alternately playing the same roles of monster and creator in Danny Boyles’s excellent stage production of Frankenstein in 2011.
Since Sherlock first aired we have also seen Mr Cumberbatch in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (in which he was excellent), War Horse, Parade’s End and the aforementioned Star Trek Into Darkness. He is always eminently watchable, bringing power, conviction, class and that great voice to everything he does. Sometimes you see actors emerge and their performances are so controlled you just know there will be Oscars in their future and this is the case with Benedict Cumberbatch. Unfortunately The Fifth Estate, where he played Julian Assange was the biggest flop of 2013 but he finished the year voicing the dragon in the second Hobbit film so I’m sure he’s going to get over it.
Speaking of Hobbits, our Bilbo also did his time with TV bit parts in things like The Bill, Casualty and a show that span off from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels that I’d never even heard of before researching this piece. It was obviously The Office that properly introduced us to Martin Freeman though. Even then, in his portrayal of Tim, he showed he could be both funny and heartbreaking and it was his story we were all following in that final Christmas Special, not David Brent’s. After The Office we saw (all of) Freeman in Love Actually, in the story thread I keep forgetting is in the film, and he was very likeable (although a little too likeable for the character) as Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
It seems that TV producers and agents wanted to capitalise on Freeman as an appealing sitcom character though as he did headline a couple of other shows. Neither Hardware or The Robinsons, seemed to find much of an audience though which meant Freeman avoided getting pigeon holed. This is great because while he is a talented comic actor (the Christmas film Nativity would have been totally forgettable without him) he can do so much more.
With Cumberbatch giving such a powerhouse performance in Sherlock a lesser actor might have been totally eclipsed but Martin Freeman as Doctor Watson is equally superb and provides the humanity of the show. The two of them work fantastically together, complementing one another and equally driving the stories forward. Freeman does frustrated exasperation brilliantly but his acting is subtle and totally compelling no matter what he is required to do on screen. His Watson is almost the braver of the two men as well as he doesn’t have an antisocial personality disorder clouding his judgement. Due to the films’ profile it is probably The Hobbit Trilogy, that will give him his signature role but brilliant as he is as Bilbo, there is nothing there to quite equal what he does in Sherlock. Martin Freeman too is destined for big things.
In the not too distant future we will see Cumberbatch as George Mallory and Alan Turing and he is also in Oscar bait 12 Years a Slave. Freeman’s slate seems to be a little clearer but I guess, his appearance in The World’s End allowing, most of his recent time away from Baker Street has been spent in Middle-Earth. Fortunately we still have two more episodes of Sherlock Series 3 to enjoy and if part one was anything to go on we are in for more treats.
The first two seasons of the show had been so good that I was a little nervous for its return. Co-creators Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss had also shown themselves to be fallible with their recent work on Doctor Who but I needn’t have worried, Sherlock has not dropped the ball (he put it under his armpit instead).
Like the main character, this new episode had a confidence bolstered by recent success but it was as involving and tense as it has ever been. The characters are all still superb with the main two as well as Gatiss’ Mycroft, Una Stubbs’ Mrs Hudson, Rupert Graves’ Lestrade and Louise Brealy’s Molly and new girl Mary. The efficiency with which Amanda Abbington fitted in to this ensemble, establishing herself as a new but instantly integral character, was a credit to the actor and the writers. The action and drama were all great and twice the programme had us on the edge of our seats even though we knew the characters involved weren’t going to die. Also, that shot of Parliament going pop was the most impressive thing I have seen on TV for a long time. The story itself was lighter than we’ve come to expect but I’m sure they’ll rectify that now that they’ve got the gang back together.
You’ve got to love they way they played with the question of how Sherlock faked his death too. Clearly none of the explanations should be trusted but that last one does hold up, I went back to the previous episode and checked. I can’t believe I didn’t notice that Ambulance station first time around, that’s clever camera work.
Sherlock is back and I can’t wait to see what Mrs Hudson’s boys get up to next.
Is this one for the kids?
We recently watched the last part of series 1 with our 12 year old daughter and she liked it but I don’t think we are going to show her the Irene Adler one. On home release Sherlock is rated 12 but it isn’t made with a family audience in mind so you never know what you are going to get. This last episode was fine for that age group but you’ll always want to check it out first. Fortunately iplayer is good for that.