Synopsis – An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman.
My Take – Let me clear this up first, this film is not the kind of Sherlock Holmes adaption you would expect to see! It has no witty banter of Benedict Cumberbatch‘s portrayal on the BBC One series, or the slow mo action performed by Robert Downey Jr from the Guy Richie directed duology or the quirky mannerisms of Jonny Lee Miller as seen on the very enjoyable American adaption of CBS‘s Elementary. Instead its a very grounded, slow paced human story of a once sterling detective and highly admired celebrity. The film is a very tender drama with some mystery elements to it, but there is no great whodunit here. There is no theft, no murder, no Moriarty (the main antagonist of the Sherlock Holmes series) the only little bit of mystery comes in the form of Sherlock trying to recall his past. We want to know how Sherlock became a bit of a recluse? What happened on his last case that made him retreat into a small house on the seaside with his housekeeper and his bees? These questions all play into the ideas that I thought about the most while watching the film — memory and mortality, and how we can lose both. What if Sherlock Holmes were a real person? What if he lived in a world in which he had been made famous by the writings of John Watson, his long-time friend and partner in (solving) crimes? What would Holmes be like as a man and what would he think of his fame and his legacy? These questions represent just some of what’s explored in this film. Watson’s accounts of Holmes’ detecting made him world famous and a legend in his own time. Watson’s stories made the character of Sherlock Holmes larger than life. He made the cases sound more exciting than they were and exaggerated other details that were further embellished on the big screen. Based on the Mitch Cullin novel, “A Slight Trick of the Mind“, we get a rare glimpse into the life of an aging legend which cleverly depicts the world’s most famous fictional detective from a non-fiction perspective. The film is a fine character study about a man who is losing his mental acuity. Now an aging recluse trying to connect names to faces and remember simple daily routines, he sits at home with a housekeeper and her son as his only company. As a standalone film, one of the great charms of this film is that it can be viewed with equal level of enjoyment by two different types of people: the type who know nothing other than the basics regarding the character of Sherlock Holmes, and equally the people who have seen or read everything about him.
It manages to appeal to both camps by being both a revisionist version of his stories, yet still keeping in the same spirit and not denying any of the prior literature. The story follows a 93 year-old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) as he lives retired in a Sussex farmhouse with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), whose husband died in World War II and her son, Roger (Milo Parker). He has retired to his cottage by the sea and taken up his well known hobby of beekeeping or apiculture. Sherlock is trying to write the truth about his last case before he dies, due to Dr John Watson’s embellishment of the facts, he has trouble remembering how the case ended. With the help of Roger and some small tricks up his sleeve, he will write the truth about his final case and how it ended his career, but also let him know that he has a compassionate side as well. The story is basically layered with a number of events; beginning with the time where a retired Sherlock Holmes is staying on a village; then we get flashbacks of his trip to Japan finding a medicine that could help his memory and his last case that seems to have an unpleasant conclusion. We see that this is a point where Holmes does see the limitations that he didn’t foresee while the other segments show how influential his career was. It’s often a character study about what kind of a fascinating man he is, but also taken over by his own abilities, which lead him to regret about his once cold nature, learning to understand how others people feel about him. Due to the fact that the film’s metronome is a 93-year-old man losing his memory, the pace is unfortunately slow for the first half of the film. Having multiple flashbacks that omit information until necessary keeps the viewer guessing but also at times frustrated. The second half of the film picks up in pace as the 3 story lines all begin to start solving themselves, but more importantly Mr. Holmes (I don’t think his first name is ever uttered in this movie) starts to realize a moral that he never quite came to terms with in all of his sleuthing regarding the truth and humanity. I’ve seen a solid handful of the countless Sherlock Holmes incarnations (he is the most commonly portrayed character in cinema) and there is something that becomes almost tragic about each one as you realize he is someone whose intelligence and wit makes him unable to live normally amongst other ‘ordinary’ people. It is rare to find something new done with an old character, especially one that has been around for nearly 150 years like Sherlock Holmes has, but that’s exactly what this film does. Director Bill Condon (The Fifth Estate, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 & Part 2, Dreamgirls) provides a wonderfully crafted story and a beautiful cinematic backdrop to unlikely discussion points. With the overly used character vehicle, Sherlock Holmes, he engages the aging hero in determining the fine line between fact and fiction and the value of the elderly. These topics may not get the average movie fan out of their seat on a weekend, but they are woven beautifully in a character driven film of relationships and mystery. A rich and meaningful relational portrait is given his mentor-ship of young Roger, who is a fledgling sleuth and fellow bee keeper.
Also, Condon seems to take joy in dismantling the mythology of the legend, as he demystifies every fictitious devise that Watson has added into the character of Sherlock Holmes. Condon continues to show his ability to provide fresh vision for story and characters. His only directing weakness is the time line continuance. There are three different time lines to consider and they can get a bit muddled, but it does not detract from the overall experience. Ultimately, he is able to effectively portray the past and the present, and allow Ian McKellen develop Holmes into an original and appealing depiction of the master sleuth. When I first read that Sir Ian McKellen had landed the role of Sherlock Holmes in a film about the end of the great detective’s life, I knew he would be perfect for the part, and indeed, who better to play the world famous detective other than actor who has immortalized two other pop culture roles as well – Magneto (X-Men series) & Gandalf (The Lord of The Rings series). Ian McKellan is easily one of the most talented and charismatic actors I have ever seen. He shows that a man well into his 70’s can still be a Hollywood A-Lister. He proves his acting chops (as always) as he gives a moving and heartfelt performance as a man twenty years older than he is even now. He seems so feeble and struggles with not wanting to let go of his life. McKellan could and probably should see an Oscar nod for this. It’s as though the charm, the suave and the elegance of the old school detective just come naturally to him. But the finest scenes are between Holmes and that farm boy Roger (Milo Parker) as they slowly but surely uncover the subtle mysteries of Ann’s case and the outbreak among bees. We instantly connect to both characters and that is a credit to the rich screenplay that gives them a variety of emotions and situations to perform in. Milo Parker looks up to Sir Ian as a mentor in the same way his character looks up to Sherlock Holmes. He might be a farm boy but he is a budding detective in his mind and talent. Milo Parker as young Roger was brilliant. I wasn’t expecting much, given he’s a child actor, but he really nailed the role. He holds his own opposite McKellan and is absolutely amazing as the wide-eyed, vivacious little boy that Holmes takes under his wing and vice versa. Laura Linney as Roger’s mother is remarkable in her role as well. Her dedication for her son’s well being, her struggles with income and dismissal of Holmes’ unabashed attitude make up for Mrs. Hudson’s absence among characters. On the whole, ‘Mr Holmes‘ is a delightful yet heart wrenching and human take on the legendary character, that truly deserves to be a part of the Holmes canon. If you are a fan of the character & don’t mind a slow burn film, this one is for you!
Director – Bill Condon
Rated – PG
Run Time – 104 minutes