The Nolanisation of Sherlock

Yesterday’s dark, mind screwing finale makes me suspect that Gatiss and Moffat are taking inspiration from the master of dark, mind screwing cinema – Christopher Nolan

A dark knight of a slightly different sort

Another dark knight

*Warning – what follows contains an abundance of spoilers. Don’t read if you are not caught up on Sherlock*

Before, I move onto the meat of the post, let me offer a short review of last night’s finale: whoa!!!

After a series that – while still brilliant – often felt unassured and unbalanced, this episode was a return to the show’s own high standards. There were moments of exquisite comedy (Sherlock having a girlfriend!) and character development (the reveal of Mary’s past). However, these did not overwhelm the deliciously complex plot as they had done in the Empty Hearse and the Sign of the Three. Oh and Mikkelson landed the role of Magnusson: he was gloriously repellent.

Now onto business. There has been a small moment from the beginning of the Sign of the Three that’s been bugging me since I saw it. In it Lestrade (almost) apprehends a group robbing banks while wearing clown masks. Why I wondered would anyone so conspicuously (and jarringly) rip-off the iconic opening of the Dark Knight for the sake of a single shot lasting a few seconds? After seeing the Last Vow, I suspect it was there as an acknowledgement of an artistic debt.

Nolan has directed a number of excellent and influential films: Inception, Insomnia, the Prestige and most famously the Dark Knight trilogy. His page on TV tropes says “his films tend to emphasize themes of obsession, deception, guilt, and order versus chaos.” That doesn’t sound a million miles away from the themes of Sherlock.

As this post at Sherlockology notes the Holmes and Batman have something of a shared history. Batman and his supporting characters were partially inspired by the inhabitants of Holmes’ universe. Conversely, a poster for a 60s Sherlock Holmes film branded him the ‘original caped crusader’ and Holmes features in a number of comics. So someone rebooting Holmes in the wake of Nolan’s gargantuanly successful rebooting of Batman was going to be influenced by them.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this, is the similarity of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Both depict their villain as flamboyantly unhinged, reptilian exhibitionists who produce enormous schemes so they can “watch the world burn.”


However, with this series it’s felt like more has been going on than just osmosis from one reboot to the other. The last two episodes have played around with chronology, a Nolan trademark. And now that we are getting to see inside Sherlock’s mind palace – it is looking an awful lot like a dream sequence out of Inception. Witness, for example, Holmes falling backwards in slow motion while his thoughts rage on at normal speed. A bit like this:

The BBC4 documentary that aired after last night’s episode featured Jeremy Brett – who played Holmes in Grenada’s adaptation of the stories – explaining that you can only see Holmes’ thoughts through “cracks in the façade.” By utilising Nolan’s technique for depicting someone’s mental ‘architecture’ on screen, Moffat and Gatiss can do something different. We plunge into Sherlock’s mind and that allows us to see that it’s a different place from what the surface might suggest. We know he’s extraordinarily rational but I’d always imagined that to be the result of him thinking without emotion in the manner of a computer. Actually what we saw in the sequences inside Sherlock’s mind was that it was a place overran by disturbing thoughts and emotions. It is only by controlling these that Sherlock can achieve his extraordinary mental feats.

It also showed us a lot about the darker side of the Sherlock-Mycroft relationship. In Sherlock’s head his elder brother seems to be the manifestation of his doubts, constantly rebuking Sherlock for his stupidity. While it seems Sherlock inherited his genius from his mother, his cold and domineering elder sibling appears to be the source of his darkness and peculiarity. Sherlock says later in the episode that Mycroft was “a rubbish older brother” that seems like an understatement.

It is of course quite possible that I’m reading too much into all of this and that Nolan’s work isn’t an influence on the show. It is perhaps a notion I have a weakness for as I’m a huge fan of both. However, I am right then that would be relevant to a debate that I’ll let the Guardian’s Sherlock blog explain:

a piece in the Independent saying you shouldn’t have to concentrate too hard to enjoy Sherlock (as if the past two decades of outstanding television, from The Wire to EastEnders, haven’t repaid viewers for taking more than a passing interest), as well as a more reasoned suggestion by Mark Lawson that shows such as Sherlock and Doctor Who should always be seeking to reach new fans and not just pleasing their online hardcore.

However, as the blog’s author Sam Wolfson later suggests

I think we’ve tired of the traditional detective format, well trodden by Poirot/Morse/Creek/CSI, where a single case is wrapped up with a few clues within one episode. Sherlock fiddling with that format is part of the reason for its success, and I’m fully on board with it continuing in ever-more brash ways.

And a success it has been. There isn’t a trade-off between demanding more of an audience and broadening it. Viewers for this series of Sherlock are actually up.

To see why I am mentioning this in relation to Nolan consider the following from Guardian film critic Mark Kermode:

Is Christopher Nolan the saviour of spectacularly intelligent cinema? On the evidence of his most recent work, the answer is an unequivocal “yes”. Having used a bestselling comic-book franchise to create a pair of movies (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) that are perhaps best described as art-house flicks posing as blockbuster fare, Nolan cashed in his hard-earned artistic and financial freedom with Inception (2010, Warner, 12), the $160m auteur vehicle that proves really expensive movies don’t have to be stupid to be successful.

Likewise Sherlock is ‘spectacularly intelligent’ TV and it’s doing exceedingly well. And if smart TV is drawing on ideas from one of the smartest guys in cinema then that’s a cause for further celebration.




2 thoughts on “The Nolanisation of Sherlock

  1. Pingback: The nasty side of nerds | Matter Of Facts
  2. Pingback: Coming up on Matter of Facts: Christopher Nolan week | Matter Of Facts

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