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Robert Downey Jr. and Jared Harris in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

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Jared Harris is the best Moriarty in any Sherlock Holmes movie

His performance in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is terrific

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Enola Holmes, now on Netflix, features many of the characters made famous by Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes novels. Sherlock himself features prominently, and so do his brother Mycroft and the determined Inspector Lestrade. But there aren’t any familiar villains in the mix. Sherlock’s arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, is nowhere to be found.

The character, who Sherlock described in The Final Problem as “the Napoleon of crime,” has become iconic enough that he’s taken on a life outside of Doyle’s work, as a villain in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and in an arc on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He served as the basis for Macavity the Mystery Cat in Cats, and he’s been portrayed by actors ranging from Laurence Olivier to Natalie Dormer. The very best Moriarty performance, however, was Jared Harris’ in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

The sequel to Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the famous detective and Jude Law as his Watson, isn’t a Sherlock Holmes movie so much as a superhero movie with the Holmes name slapped on it for the sake of making it a recognizable property. But Harris’ Moriarty is tremendous. He’s poised in a way that Downey Jr.’s nerve-y Sherlock isn’t, and that makes him particularly terrifying when he does things no one in their right mind would do, and does them with that same grace and control.

moriarty, seated, looks up at sherlock, standing
Jared Harris and Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Every scene he’s in is striking, but his most memorable moment comes when he captures Sherlock, stringing him up by a hook embedded into his chest. While Sherlock swings and screams above him, Moriarty is perfectly calm, and he starts singing Franz Schubert’s song “Die Forelle,” or “The Trout.” His point is that Sherlock is the trout, caught in Moriarty’s trap. As Moriarty sings, he regards himself in a mirror, admiring his reflection and putting on an exaggerated performance for himself. It’s a terrifying act of narcissism, as well as an act of cruelty as Sherlock hangs, bleeding, in the background of his performance.

The sequence feels like it could have been pulled from a Bond movie, with a megalomaniacal villain monologuing over James Bond and inadvertently giving the spy time to figure out his escape. But in this case, escape seems hopeless. Harris’ Moriarty isn’t a blowhard, and the degree of his villainy only gradually becomes apparent. He’s only performing because he knows it’s safe to do so — Holmes has no recourse.

That sense of inevitability and omnipotence is underlined by the way Ritchie lets Moriarty in on Sherlock’s inner thoughts. Through most of the film, Sherlock is able to roughly deduce the outcome of any given fight or series of events; he plays out the sequence in his head, narrating it to the audience as it unfolds in bullet time before Ritchie shows that moment occurring in real time. In Game of Shadows’ finale, however, Moriarty breaks in with an inner monologue, too, and their physical duel almost becomes a match of wits instead, as each hypothetical punch Sherlock throws is blocked by Moriarty narrating what he’d do to counter it.

moriarty smiles menacingly
Jared Harris in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s a very cinematic way of illustrating the fact that Moriarty is more than a match for Sherlock’s genius intellect; he can break into Sherlock’s innermost thoughts, and control what’s happening on the screen just as much as the film’s main character can. Harris’ frighteningly collected performance adds to the sense that Moriarty is a match for a seemingly superhuman detective, rather than a run-of-the-mill evil mastermind. Many other Moriartys — Richard Roxburgh’s in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Ralph Fiennes’ in the (admittedly comedic) Holmes & Watson — settle for menacing gravitas. Harris has that gravitas, but his menacing quality comes from how self-possessed and confident he is. In Harris’ hands, Moriarty isn’t a caricature of evil; he’s an equal to Sherlock in intellect, perhaps even more brilliant, and he’s terrifying because he lacks Sherlock’s moral code and attachment to humanity.

As the cherry on top of the evil cake, Harris leaves rooms for cracks in Moriarty’s seemingly uncrackable veneer — a frustrated sigh here, a heavy pause there — that makes his eventual rage and break in composure believable, rather than a too-sudden change. When Moriarty, finally defeated, roars and loses all self-control, Harris has already done the work of making it easy for audiences to believe that he’d had such rage bubbling within him all along.

The mix between attention paid to the character and Harris’ immense talent makes Moriarty a villain to remember. Even if Moriarty the character weren’t already an indelible part of the Holmes canon, Harris’ performance would ensure he became one.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is available to rent on Amazon.