The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes



To mark the release of Mr. Holmes, the latest film to portray yet another incarnation of Sherlock Holmes (played by Ian McKellen), we take a quick look back at some of the more memorable faces of Holmes over the years.

Basil Rathbone

Leading by example in 1939, Basil Rathbone was, for many, the quintessential Holmes- contemplative, considered, methodical. His approach to the role was very much rooted in the original books. This refreshingly authentic portrayal brought the beloved character from text into real life. Illustrating the true character traits of Sherlock Holmes, Rathbone leads as a humane realist who takes the world for what it truly is. After having an abundance of positive reviews, Rathbone continued to represent the heroic Holmes for a total of 14 films as well as a radio broadcast show. To this day Rathbone is most associated with his days as Sherlock Holmes.

Robert Downey Jr.

Perhaps nearly turning the character completely on its head by positioning Holmes as an almost-superhero, Guy Richie’s film versions of Sherlock Holmes were explosive and action packed, featuring a brash, brawny and sexualized turn with Robert Downey Jr. as the title character. Downey Jr. took on the role adding an eccentric, humourous, irreverent twist to a revitalised Holmes. Identifying with the quirky, peculiar traits of Holmes, Downey Jr. focused on the unconventional lifestyle of the detective while shedding light on his patriotic manner. He was awarded a Golden Globe Award as Best Performance by an Actor in a comedy or musical for his role as Holmes.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Also straying from the original character, in a role that arguably solidified his position as an international superstar, Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as BBC TV’s ‘Sherlock’ updated the traditional vision of the detective. Acting as a dynamic, wisecracking brainiac, Cumberbatch reinvents a side of Holmes that had not previously been seen. This modern day approach to Sherlock Holmes depicts a man with little human empathy for those and the world around him. Cumberbatch has continued to draw much attention to the series through his unique, divisive yet ultimately enjoyable performance.


Johnny Lee Miller

Taking Holmes in yet another direction, Johnny Lee Miller plays the character in the popular U.S .TV hit Elementary with a sharp and shrewd female Watson (Lucy Liu), a former surgeon, as his sidekick. The TV series is set in Manhattan as Holmes (loosely based on the original character), a recovering addict, assists the New York City Police Department in solving crimes. Throughout this modern version of the famous storyline, Miller executes Holmes as a rude and resentful sleuth. While many did not have high hopes for the series, it quickly became one of the most watched shows on the CBS network since 2012.


McKellen Holmes

The most recent incarnation of Holmes is Ian McKellen’s critically acclaimed Sherlock in the new film, Mr. Holmes. McKellen, directed by his Gods and Monsters collaborator Bill Condon, takes on the role of a retired Holmes, determined to solve a final case from his past that remained unsolved, haunting him through his retirement. Although it may be intimidating for some to play a role that has been flawlessly executed on many occasions, that is not the case for McKellen. Speaking about his decision to take on the role of Holmes, McKellen explained, “Because when you come to do, say, Hamlet, you are aware that thousands of actors have done it before. You can take from that fact the knowledge that many have played it quite well. Maybe you can play it well yourself.” McKellen’s portrayal of Holmes depicts an emotional, hopeful aspect to the well known character that people have yet to see. After all these years, we will be given a glimpse of Sherlock Holmes we never thought could exist.


Mr. Holmes opens in Irish cinemas on 19th June.




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