I’ve anxiously awaited this film, not only as an Ian McKellen fan but as a devout Sherlockian since Jeremy Brett played the master detective in the 1980’s Granada series. Anticipation of McKellen’s take on the iconic Victorian sleuth ignited in me an enthusiasm I’ve not felt in years. Today, I’m genuinely happy to report that Sir Ian McKellen, and Mr. Holmes, did not disappoint.
Mr. Holmes went well beyond my expectations of an aged Sherlock Holmes coming out of retirement for one more case. This film reveals the life of a man in decline, living a self-imposed exile as a hobbyist bee-keeper in the south of England. An old case, Holmes’ final, holds the key to this exile, however senility is quickly setting in and Holmes himself has forgotten what transpired decades earlier. The regret lingers, but the cause has been lost. Working with the aid of young Roger Munro (Milo Parker), his house-keeper’s son, Holmes slowly uncovers his own tracks through various mnemonic clues. A picture, a glove, a film version of Dr. Watson’s fictionalized (read: sanitized, yet sensationalized) account of this tragic case are all Holmes has to jog his failed memory. Fortunately, eventually, the clues bring recollection and the answer revealed as one that shocks Sherlock Holmes to the very core of his coolly methodical soul.
There is much to be appreciated in this fine work from director Bill Condon, who also helmed Dreamgirls and Gods & Monsters – in which McKellen played an aging James Whale. Condon’s storytelling expertise is evident in every carefully composed frame. Attention to period detail is impeccable in both the 1940s where the film’s main action is set and post-WW I London, the setting of Holmes’ last case. The script is smart, well up to Conan-Doyle’s standards. Laura Linney’s performance as Holmes’ war widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, was superbly natural, adding always to the embittered widow just enough depth to garner our empathy without demanding it. Young Milo Parker showed great promise in his first serious role, the launching of a bright fledgling actor. Mr. Holmes is a serious film, though not without moments of whimsy: When Holmes views the cinema version of Watson’s telling of this ill-fated final case, he is played onscreen by non-other than Nicholas Rowe from 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes.
Of course, Ian McKellen as the great detective addled with a failing mind is truly this film’s highlight. The subtly nuanced performance presents us with Holmes both at the height of his analytical powers and as a feeble old man in his 90’s seeking reconciliation with the notably emotionally distanced person he was in the past. McKellen never begs us for our sympathy or understanding, he never has too. It is Holmes who elicits our admiration, our pity and our reproach; the mark of all consummate actors: McKellen’s illusion was complete.
Mr. Holmes will most likely not be out much longer, and may not be available at every multiplex; nevertheless this film is worth finding. Once again, in a summer dominated by $100M superhero tent-poles and monsters it is easy to miss the smaller gems.