DIR: Bill Condon • WRI: Jeffrey Hatcher • PRO: Iain Canning, Anne Carey, Emile Sherman • DOP: Tobias A. Schliessler • MUS: Carter Burwell • DES: Martin Childs • CAST: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada
It feels like we’ve just about reached peak Holmes saturation at this point. Between Guy Ritchie’s wildly revisionist take on the character and the global phenomenon that has been Sherlock, it seems like modern (especially geek) culture has a renewed obsession with the great detective. This is to say nothing of Sherlock’s oft-shunned younger brother, Elementary (which is honestly the better of the two modern-Holmes’ and really doesn’t get the credit it deserves. But that’s a discussion for another day). And now comes Mr Holmes, a much quieter affair than those other examples. A film that would likely have been relegated to the art house circuit was it not for the current popularity of the brand and of course the casting of the lead. It should be near impossible to cast anyone in the role after both Cumberbatch and Downey Jr. have so thoroughly made it their own in recent memory, especially given their world-conquering box-office abilities (well, unless maybe they’d cast Tom Hiddleston). Impossible that is, unless you bring in one of the patron saints of modern Geekdom; Sir Ian McKellen.
Mr Holmes follows a ninety-three year-old, long-retired Holmes. Having recently returned from a trip to Japan, Holmes spends his days in a remote part of Sussex where he tends enthusiastically to his bee-keeping. He lives there with his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Linney) and her young, inquisitive son Roger (Parker). Aware that his time in this world is short, Holmes is desperate to remember the details of his final case and chronicle them. However, his once brilliant mind is quickly deteriorating, leaving him frustrated and morose at his inability to remember simple things such as names and more important matters such as what happened in that final case and why it caused him to retire and exile himself to Sussex. Unfortunately, the housekeeper’s son Roger has been raised on the legend of Sherlock Holmes and refuses to leave the old man in peace. Initially reluctant, Holmes’ eventually comes to see the value Roger’s presence has in aiding him to remember that final case and so takes Roger under his wing to teach him everything from basic deduction to good beekeeping practices, hoping that along the way he might finally work out what happened in that final case and what failure could have been so great that he’d retire.
For a moment at the start of this film, it looks like they’ve got the casting all wrong. Despite some genuinely amusing scenes where all McKellen has to do is sit there and glower with his incredibly-old-man variation of the classic Resting Bitch Face, he doesn’t seem very Holmes-y. Then the film flashes back to the beginning of that final case and we see McKellen playing the character when he was still at his peak and you genuinely question why the world waited this long to given us Sir Ian as Sherlock Holmes. So, no surprises; Ian McKellen is brilliant in a film, what’s new. What makes it impressive though is that he’s playing the character when Sherlock is supposed to be both younger than McKellen currently is and much older. And he’s equally convincing as both. While that’s partially down to some great make-up work, a lot of it is entirely McKellen. In fact, he’s almost too good. The vulnerability and fragility with which he plays the older Holmes is so convincing at points that I genuinely feared that I was about to see Ian McKellen the actor die onscreen before my very eyes. And then in the next scene we’d be back in flashback territory where he’s full of sly smirks and quick-witted retorts while he’s jauntily tailing his mark through London and it feels entirely seamless.
It’s an impressive balancing act for the actor but it’s just as impressive narratively. The way the film utilises the flashbacks is probably most comparable to We Need to Talk about Kevin. The fragmented structure of the overall narrative does an excellent job of visually demonstrating his increasingly failing and disjointed memory without it ever becoming confusing or insufferable. You get just enough plot to satisfy you while still leaving you wanting the rest. (So, it’ll be unsurprising to hear that this is based on a book) The one downside of this is that while the ‘present’ plot is interesting, the flashbacks do such a good job of realising what Sherlock Holmes Classic should look like, that you find yourself wanting a full movie of McKellen’s Holmes Prime just solving cases without all of the older Holmes’ existentialism. But that would just be being greedy.
Despite the overall solid cast, perhaps the most deserving of praise is young Milo Parker who plays Roger. This is the kind of character that can slip all too easily into the insufferably precocious child archetype and the fact that he never does is a huge testament to both Parker and the script. He quickly becomes endearing and only continues to grow in likeability as Holmes realises what a nightmarish mini-me of himself he’s slowly turning the boy into. For a character that could have at best been simply a cypher-like audience POV or at worst, the aforementioned archetype, the film manages to make a surprisingly compelling character in Roger.
As for everything else, there’s really nothing to complain about. The directing is solid if un-showy, the cinematography is crisp and the score is perfectly fine. One nice touch is that they avoid the temptation (as with so many Holmes adaptations) to lean too heavily on the violin, instead opting a score that utilises a lot of glass harmonica music (for good reason, it’s plot-related). The film can feel a tad televisual at times but that’s to be expected with a relatively low-budget period piece such as this. That said, they do their best to elevate proceedings where possible and sequences such as Holmes walking through the still smouldering Hiroshima are both effecting and visually striking.
This is probably the definitive on-screen Holmes so far this century. McKellen is perfect and the script is filled with the kind of witticisms, patronising sarcasm and exasperated sighs you’d expect. The film resists the urge to go overboard with its addressing of a post-modern Holmes and instead subtly weaves it into the story organically rather than borderline breaking the fourth wall with how pleased with itself it is (*cough* Sherlock *cough*). It’s an often funny, occasionally emotional and thoroughly satisfying, if melancholic, examination of one of popular culture’s most enduring figures.
PG (See IFCO for details)
Mr Holmes is released 19th June 2015