In Bill Condon’s rather superb Mr Holmes, an elderly Sherlock Holmes (Sir Ian Mckellen) looks back on his life and career, and grapples with an unsolved case that led to his premature retirement thirty years earlier. Mitch Cullin’s novel, an imagination of the famous detective’s retirement – not covered by John Watson in the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collection – has been well adapted for the screen by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher. It works as a sterling accompaniment to, but quite the departure from, the most recent portrayals by Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr, both portraying the sleuth at his most eccentric. This charming and quietly powerful film moves along at a modest clip, but reveals a deceptive amount of depth as it deftly traverses multiple mysteries over three different time periods, revealed in fragments to the rhythm of the 93-year-old’s imperfect memory.
Having relocated from Baker Street to a Sussex seaside country house, Holmes shares company with his reliable housekeeper Mrs. Monroe (Laura Linney) and her inquisitive and strong-willed son Roger (Milo Parker). He now spends a great deal of his time tending to his apiary, rattled by guilt and a deep pain he now struggles to understand. His brilliant mind is ailing and his memory fading. Having recently returned from Hiroshima, a venture which originated as a hunt for a potentially rejuvenating rare herb but left Holmes with more questions than answers, he starts bonding with Roger. As he teaches Roger how to look after his bees and discusses what he remembers about his final case, Holmes begins to remember the specifics of the events that led to his retirement. Dissatisfied with Watson’s glorified published version of events, Holmes decides to recount the truth before it is too late.
I enjoyed Mr Holmes a great deal. It is intelligent and polished, and a cleverly conceived twist on the character, focusing more on the man behind the fame. While he is a brilliant man, this is clear, he is also a mortal human being – suffering from the debilitating stages of old age. Ever the perfectionist, he struggles to find an answer to some troubling questions that he doesn’t want to take with him to his grave. While most of the film is spent in the present, as he desperately tries to solve his final riddle, we do get the chance to see him at his very best. The case in question is an intriguing one, ripe with opportunities to reveal his unparalleled powers of deduction.
This is an elegantly layered film that leaves plenty to contemplate on. While there are multiple mysteries at work, I especially appreciated the editing between the different timelines, prompted by Holmes’ jogged memory via an object or a letter. Coen Bros regular Carter Burwell also provides a lovely score. Mr Holmes also toys with the myth of Holmes – the real man vs. the Watson chronicles. He reveals the use of the fake Baker Street address, and declares that he much prefers the cigar over the pipe. These playful self-aware nods to the icon are delivered with trademark McKellen twinkle, which means they work beautifully.
Aided by outstanding make-up work, McKellen is captivating here. We never see him as a young man, but he is completely convincing as the suave and relatively sprightly aging super-sleuth, and the rickety 93-year-old rattled by lingering pain and a failing mind. McKellen creates two very distinctly different characters; and yet ensures that certain mannerisms remain consistent across both. While McKellen has had few roles outside of the X-Men franchise and two Middle Earth trilogies in the last fifteen years, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in another Condon film, Gods and Monsters. Giving an unnaturally excellent child performance is Parker. The pair share some wonderful moments, and while McKellen alone would have made for a rewarding watch, Parker gave it an unexpected lift.
For anyone expecting the Baker Street suspense and the energy of Cumberbatch’s portrayal, this likely won’t be their speed, but Mr Holmes creates a potent study of reflection within the twilight of life and the will of the elderly to set things right. This is wrapped up in a honourable representation of one of literature’s most iconic heroes at his most vulnerable. I found the film to be very moving, and well worth the visit to the cinema. The more I think about this film, the more it offers and that’s something I will cherish from this experience.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Bill Condon
Writer(s): Jeffrey Hatcher (Screenplay), Mitch Cullin (Original Story)
Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker
Runtime: 104 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: 23rd July, 2015