Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hattie Morohan, Patrick Kennedy, Hiroyuki Sanada
Sherlock Holmes has had somewhat of a resurgence in the last decade. Between Guy Ritchie’s films, the British television series Sherlock and the American series Elementary, the original super sleuth is once again front-of-mind. Rather than piggybacking on the popularity of these other texts, Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes presents itself as an alternative, even an antidote, to the current Holmes craze.
Adapted from the Mitch Cullin novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, this is no modernised, stylised, cool Sherlock Holmes. Rather, we are presented with Holmes (Ian McKellen) as a 93 year old man. Having long since retired and moved out of Baker St, with Watson and Mrs Hudson both deceased, Holmes now resides in a country house in Sussex with his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her inquisitive son Roger (Milo Parker). While still a keen observer with sharp deductive skills, in his old age Holmes’s memory is starting to fail him. He is working away at his memoirs, trying to set the record straight and record the real versions of the stories that Watson had mythologised. In particular, he is trying to remember his last case. It is a case that had such an effect on him and left him so stricken with guilt that it caused him to abandon his profession and retire. But now, 35 years later, he can’t remember what happened. With only Watson’s fabricated account, and his own fading memories, Holmes must recreate and resolve the case.
Sherlock Holmes stories are usually mysteries in which he is our protagonist and investigator. Mr. Holmes is slightly different as the film is actually about him. It is a character study. This final mystery Holmes is seeking to solve is himself, and his nemesis is the process of ageing. While we have seen films about ageing people dealing with their faculties starting to fail them before, having these symptoms placed on this character so celebrated for his mental acuity adds something to both the character and the theme.
By showing Holmes as an older man, Mr. Holmes also engages in the demythologising of this character, trying to show us the “real” Sherlock as opposed to the hyperbolised one that appears in Dr Watson’s books. We see Holmes frustrated by his misrepresentation in Watson’s accounts. “Fiction is worthless,” he tells young Roger who inquires about the memoirs he is writing. In one scene he finds himself in a cinema, rolling his eyes as he watches a pipe-smoking, deer-stalker wearing portrayal of himself on the screen. In a nice little nod to old fans, the actor who plays Sherlock in this matinee is Nicholas Rowe, who played the character in Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985.
As is to be expected, Ian McKellen makes for a tremendous Sherlock Holmes. Mr. Holmes represents the second pairing for the star and director, with McKellen and Condon having previously collaborated on the Academy Award winning Gods and Monsters, the 1998 biopic of Frankenstein director James Whale which shared a similar theme of ageing. It is nice to see Holmes portrayed in a different way. McKellen’s Holmes is not an egotist, a sociopath, nor is he suggested to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, as has become the fashion for this character. Rather, this Holmes is a man who has accrued the wisdom and scars of a long life. He is a man alone and full of regret and McKellen gives him a real gravitas and presence on screen. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay employs a double flashback structure. While the film is set in 1947, we also see action from the recent past while Holmes was on a visit to Japan in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and from 35 years in the past when he was investigating his final case. This structure means that McKellen is required to play Holmes as both a 93 year old (17 years older than he is) and a 58 year old (18 years younger than he is).
Sherlock Holmes is famously the most portrayed movie character in history, with over seventy actors having played the role in over two hundred films, but Bill Condon’s elegant and ponderous film succeeds in coming at the iconic character from a slightly different angle. With a slow and shuffling pace, Mr. Holmes is one more for fans of the literary Holmes than those who have been won over by more recent big and small screen incarnations.
Review by Duncan McLean
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