Why not Henry Cavill as Sherlock Holmes?

M.J. Downing.

            With the recent release of a “coming attractions” Netflix ad, folks will see that Enola Holmes 2 is on its way in ’22.  Furthermore, “Screen rant” suggests that Henry Cavill’s reprise of the Sherlock role will be more involved in the second view. In my view, I say, why not Cavill? Since his Holmes isn’t the central figure in the two E.H. films, based on the young adult books by Nancy Springer, I would like to suggest that there is room in what Doyle wrote for a variety of depictions of Holmes, including Cavill’s rather broad-shouldered, action hero look.

While the brief glimpse of E.H.2 in that trailer is more designed to present Netflix’s message, it brings with it a return of the debate about Henry Cavill’s fitness to play the iconic detective. One source suggested that Cavill is “too hot,” about which I must let others judge.  “He’s too big,” declare some, while others say he’s “too emotionally available,” preferring the intellectual detachment of Doyle’s character, who often states that he must let Watson handle the emotional end of things. Holmes, as Watson tells us, is more like a human thinking-machine—a computer, we might say. Doyle hadn’t the luxury of the computer to establish the detachment of his sleuth, a detachment that makes of him the ideal reasoner.

Holmes, as Doyle describes him, is tall and slender, though he is quite the athlete: boxer, swordsman, single-stick player, and “baritsu” (a specious Doylean martial art) aficionado.  Basically, he could do near anything that Doyle set out for him in any one of his adventures. In Doyle’s stories, how he looked was secondary to what he could do as a reasoner.  His physical abilities play second fiddle to his intellect, in every case (pun intended). His  strength or ability is inextricably suited to his need in any adventure, which gives a great deal of latitude to those who, like Nancy Springer and yours truly, place him in new stories.

            Most disputes about Holmes’s look are often driven by Holmesian purists, who take refuge in the Basil Rathbone portrayals as the gold standard. A brief look at Rathbone’s bio will show that he had the physical abilities to play any manner of Holmes a writer could contrive, in addition to bearing some likeness to Holmes in the original Strand Magazine, Sidney Paget, illustrations.  The other likely candidate offered by the purist camp might be BBC’s Jeremy Brett, who was certainly cool, arrogant, even aloof, though somewhat “weedy” in appearance. Then, there is Benedict Cumberbatch, with Holmes as “high-functioning sociopath,” who blends more of Doyle’s description of the detective with contemporary views on emotional intelligence. Certainly, we must not leave out Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes, who takes to extreme the eccentricities of Doyle’s detective. However, it would appear that without Rathbone, purists will never be quite satisfied with an on-screen depiction of Holmes, the physically malleable, super-thinker, whose primary ability is that he can uncover the true narrative of any criminal event through his ability to “read” and reason his way through seemingly disconnected facts.

            In my own Watson-centered horror fantasies, I try to keep true to Doyle’s description of Holmes’s intellectual and physical abilities, though my aim is to round out Watson’s two-dimensional character. Through Watson, I can touch on a wide range of Victorian issues such poverty of the working class, the downtrodden role of women in society, the rise of interest in the occult, etc, and Springer’s Enola Holmes adventures are doing something quite similar. In choosing Enola, played admirably by Stranger Things’” Milly Bobby Brown, the youngest child of the Holmes family, Springer calls upon our fascination with the Victorian age and its many issues.  Enola raises the issue of what a woman with Holmes’s abilities would encounter in that age, an aged dominated by its white male citizens and their concomitant prejudices. Moreover, as a young woman, Enola must battle the misogynism of the age, which differs little from the struggles of women, still.  She must exert her true nature so as not to be seen as an object. As she seeks to solve her mystery, she determines more clearly who she is.  

Cavill’s depiction of Holmes as Enola’s favorite older brother must then suit the story.  He must become a slightly different sort of Holmes, and older, caring brother, while he assumes the iconic character’s place in the film’s vibrant depiction of London life in the Victorian milieu. We must see Enola compared to her larger-than-life sleuth brother and witness what his sort of intellect would encounter when expressed from a young woman’s perspective. Sherlock’s values, as much as his abilities (i.e., his sense of justice, his need to solve a crime that brings harm to its victim) must be central to his character in the Enola Holmes films. So long as Cavill doesn’t rip off his shirt and become a Victorian version of the Man of Steel—or the Witcher—his casting in the role must be examined with the idea of the story’s plot in mind.  After all, such is the way Doyle uses Sherlock Holmes in every story. Perhaps this next Enola Holmes film will help cement Cavill’s depiction of Holmes in viewers mind.

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