Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Milo Parker
Director: Bill Condon
Writer: Jeffrey Hatcher
Sir Ian McKellen, having played both Gandalf and Magneto on screen, knows a thing or two about playing iconic characters. Often when a character becomes iconic, the audience mythologises them. Their images and ideas of these characters become so ingrained in their minds that any change or deviancy from the original is often regarded with hostility, even when it’s done well and with the best intentions. Indeed, history has actually shown that it is possible for these characters to be reinterpreted and reinvented in many different ways while still remaining true to the essence of what makes them iconic. Sherlock Holmes, one of the most iconic characters in all of film and literature, is a prime example in this regard. From Basil Rathbone as the dignified and enigmatic sleuth, to Jeremy Brett as the unhinged and eccentric obsessive, to Benedict Cumberbatch as the modern-day high-functioning sociopath, many have offered their own unique portrayals of the great detective while still remaining true to the heart and soul of the character. This film explores the theme of the mythology of heroes by showing Sherlock Holmes, a man who both defines and defies the legend surrounding him, in the autumn years of his life.
Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) is 93 years old and has retired to the country. Watson, Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson have long since departed and so he spends his days in isolation tending to his bees with only his housemaid Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) as company. As he looks back at the circumstances of his final case and Watson’s portrayal of what happened, he finds himself unsettled by the unsatisfactory outcome of the story. In his attempt to remember what really happened and what catastrophic event must have actually taken place to have driven him into retirement, Sherlock becomes all too aware of his failing mind. All he remembers are fragments concerning a beautiful woman whose picture he still holds. The man who made his name and who became a legend for his singular ability to solve puzzles and mysteries becomes lost in his quest to unlock the secrets to his own mind and to human nature.
Unlike the recent offerings of the Sherlock Holmes mythos by Guy Ritchie and Steven Moffatt; Mr. Holmes is a quieter, more tempered story. This is something I found to be both a strength and a weakness. On one hand the tranquil tone of the film reflects the docility of Holmes’ life as he spends his remaining days contemplating and reflecting on the days of adventure now long behind him. On the other hand watching this film can be a laborious task as the story does drag at certain parts. Since this film does emphasise that the Sherlock Holmes of Watson’s stories is in fact a romanticised depiction of the man himself, it should therefore be no surprise that this film contains little of the exhilaration or the thrills for which his stories are known. Nonetheless I still found myself somewhat underwhelmed by how modest and restrained this film turned out to be.
Sir Ian McKellen provides an elegant performance both as the ageing Sherlock Holmes slowly succumbing to the dilapidation of age and as the younger Holmes at the prime of his wit and intellect undergoing what will be his final case. The bond he forms with Roger provides an emotional core to the story that I hadn’t expected to see and eventually leads to some fine moments both touching and heartrending. However I still felt like it could have been taken further. I never really felt like the Sherlock of this film ever really substantiated the remarkable, singular mind from the stories and perhaps that was the point, but still it seemed to me like the film could have delved further into Holmes’ psyche and could have gone further to show the gears at work. As refined and poignant as I found McKellen’s performance to be, I never really felt like the film got beneath the skin of his character. Although this film did an admirable job of showing the devastating effects age can have on a person, I didn’t really think it left much of an impression on me or really made its impact felt. The elements were all certainly there, I just think they could have been developed further.
Still, with all of its restraint and shortcomings, there is much about this film to admire. McKellen shines in the role of the great detective and provides his most emotional performance in years. The film is artistically shot and provides some beautiful images of the English countryside. The idea of man and myth is a compelling one as the film discusses the legend of Sherlock Holmes and its relationship to the man himself as well as offering an insight into the question of what happens to the hero after the legend is over. Even though the story is understated, the emotional journey of Holmes is diffident and the film commits the heinous crime of underusing Laura Linney, it is an interesting and sometimes moving film that provides an intriguing take on Conan Doyle’s creation.