Despite the last “official” Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes story having been published eighty-eight years ago, the character has shown amazing resilience over the decades, with each generation seemingly having a Holmes to call their own. Heck, we currently have three, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey. Jr and Jonny Lee Miller all currently giving the character a go. Now, add to that list seventy-six-year-old Ian McKellen.
Based on the novel ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind’ which imagined Holmes near the end of his life and faced with the loss of his immense intellect, director Bill Condon’s MR. HOLMES is probably the most traditional version of the sleuth currently in play. Even still, Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher find ways to play with Holmes’ legend. In their version, Holmes has lived to see his adventures popularized as novels by Dr. Watson (from who’s perspective the Doyle stories were written from) and even takes in a matinee of a Sherlock Holmes film (albeit not a real Basil Rathbone one – rather a fictional one that spurs on the re-opening of his final case).
Most significantly, Holmes is humanized a great deal, with him coming off as a much warmer character than usual, driven by guilt surrounding his last case – even if he can’t remember why he feels that way. This is probably the nicest Sherlock Holmes since Christopher Plummer in MURDER BY DECREE. He also eschews deer-stalker caps, prefers a cigar to pipes, and seems to actually enjoy interacting with people other than Watson, quickly forming a grandfatherly bond with his housekeeper’s clever son, Roger, who he instructs in the art of beekeeping – with a little detection thrown in for good measure.
One thing MR. HOLMES is not is a mystery. This is much more like Condon’s previous collaboration with McKellen, GODS & MONSTERS than it is to any actual Holmes thriller. It’s a character study through-and-through, but in that regard it’s often very entertaining. As anyone could have guessed, McKellen makes for an exceptional Holmes, although he’s certainly the nicest Holmes on record. McKellen gets to play Holmes both as an infirmed old man, as well as a more spry middle-aged version, never missing a beat. As the younger Holmes, he delights in watching tourists flood the fictional Baker Street address Watson listed, while sometimes having fun with his notoriety in the midst of an investigation.
However, its McKellen’s work as the old Holmes that really makes MR. HOLMES a must-see. It’s pretty interesting to see how Holmes deals with the loss of the thing he prizes most – his intellect – and a side trip to Japan where he tries to find a rare elixir that is supposed to restore cognitive function is intriguing. Here, Holmes comes face to face with the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing (this takes place in ’47) and it’s intriguing how Condon places this fictional character in a very real, tragic setting, grounding him in a way most other Holmes incarnations wouldn’t be able to.
McKellen also has terrific chemistry with Milo Parker as young Roger, and it’s rare that McKellen, who’s always called on to play these larger-than-life figures like Gandalf and Magneto, gets to show such a warm side. McKellen and Parker really bring a lot out of each other and while their relationship could have been maudlin, Condon never lets things go too far into family-movie territory, throwing in necessary harsh moments, such as a nod to Holmes’ famous cocaine addiction from the books. As usual, Laura Linney is also excellent, adopting a pretty perfect working-class English accent, but in the end this is McKellen and Parker’s film.
While MR. HOLMES isn’t award-caliber or even really exceptional, it’s still a very entertaining worthwhile piece of summer counter-programming. It’s a terrific showcase for Ian McKellen and further evidence that McKellen should be allowed to play every major British icon at least once. Maybe Doctor Who next?