It’s for very good reason that Sherlock Holmes has been and always will be one of the most enduring and beloved figures in fiction. He’s wickedly smart, observant, cunning, mischievous and always seems to come out on top. What’s not to love? His detective skills are unparalleled and have inspired such characters as Batman and Dr. Gregory House in the acclaimed television drama House. In recent years there’s been a resurgence of the Sherlock brand, with everything from big budget blockbusters, to a couple of highly successful television shows. The latest Holmesian offering is Mr. Holmes starring Ian Mckellen, Laura Linney and directed by Bill Condon, who had previously worked with Ian Mckellen on the 1998 film Gods and Monsters. The concept alone should pull the curious in, with Mckellen playing an severely aged Holmes living in the 1940’s, ruminating on his last case and a life lived. Concept alone isn’t enough to guarantee a great film, so how did Mr. Holmes hold up? Let’s take a look.
As this is a Sherlock Holmes picture there is of course a fair bit of mystery. The mystery this time around centers on Mr. Holmes inability to remember the details of his last case, as his advanced age has left his mind fractured and his body frail. His final case was that of a man hiring him to investigate the odd behavior of a wife recently devastated by the pre-natal loss of not one, but two babies. The story of that case is presented to us via flashbacks, as the bulk of the story takes place in a post World War II England. The elderly Sherlock lives in a cottage, spending his days tending to his bee’s, and looking for a remedy for his failing memory. He’s looked after by his Housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney) and her young son Roger, played by a fantastic Milo Parker. I won’t spoil the details of Holmes final case, but I can say that how it ties into the current events of Mr. Holmes life with Munro and her son are quite spectacular.
This picture belongs, hands down, to Ian Mckellen and I would not be surprised to see him get a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars. His turn as the legendary detective is nothing short of masterful, and that he’s playing the character at two different ages is something that can’t be missed. The subtle nuances present in Mckellen’s body language to portray the fast approaching senile Mr. Holmes show us an actor at the absolute peak of their abilities. Little things from how he moves, to the intonation in his voice allow Ian Mckellen to give a separation between the older Sherlock Holmes investigating his last case and the much older Holmes living a secluded retirement in the country side. The interplay between Holmes and the young Roger are a highlight of the picture as well. Milo Parker was phenomenal as Roger, and in scripting the boy the writers wisely avoided any cliched, or overused children-in-movies tropes we see so often. I expect to see great things from this young actor in the future.
This is a film you owe yourself to see. It’s truly great filmmaking. The cinematography is lush and inviting and the shots of the English coastline are breathtaking. The production design builds a world of Sherlock Holmes we’d like to never leave. The messy details of his desk and work area feel like they need investigated as much as any of Holmes cases ever did. The directing in this was very well done, and subtle. This isn’t a flashy picture. I’d dare to call it understated, and that’s fitting. A quiet, smaller picture parallels the quiet, smaller life Mr. Holmes leads in his old age. This is a side of Sherlock Holmes that, I personally, have not seen before and I’m extremely grateful this story was told.