Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Ian McKellen, Milo Parker, Laura Linney
Rating: 3 stars
If you’re like most modern-day fans of Sherlock Holmes, then you’re used to seeing the fairly youthful avatars of the great detective — either as portrayed by Robert Downey Junior in the Guy Ritchie films, or by Benedict Cumberbatch in the hit BBC series. Even in the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the most popular of the cases usually have a spry Sherlock and an able-bodied Watson.
But the detective you’ll meet in this week’s Hollywood release — Mr Holmes — is certainly not spry or youthful. In fact, when we meet him (as played by Sir Ian McKellen), he is living out what may possibly be his very last days, battling dementia and ill health, in a quiet English village. Holmes — who’s caught the most notorious of murderers in his prime — is now far more concerned with what’s killing the bees in his beloved apiary. Of course, he is still fairly unsociable and eccentric as his younger, better known avatars.
While his Watson may no longer be with him (he is dead), Holmes does have a sidekick — Roger (Milo Parker), the precocious little boy of his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney). Roger is ever curious about the great Holmes’ cases, his “method”. When he discovers that Holmes is trying to reconstruct the last case he ever took up — the one that convinced him to retire, and Watson’s retelling of which doesn’t strike him as true — Roger pushes him to jog his memory as much as he can and finish writing what really happened.
But even as Holmes tries all kinds of aids (outré remedies, looking at objects from the past) other mysteries too are swirling up around him, leading up to a possibly tragic outcome. And the remote Sussex farmhouse he, Roger and Mrs Munro live in seems like a gloomy enough setting for such happenings.
Are the cases/deduction/mystery at par with other Holmes cases? No, certainly not. But then this isn’t a story about his deductive prowess. This is a story, as the film’s tag line reads, about “the man behind the myth”. Indeed, this isn’t Conan Doyle’s Sherlock at all. The source material is the book A Slight Trick of the Mind by the American author Mitch Cullin. McKellen’s Holmes asserts at several points during the proceedings that the Sherlock that people know is the one that Watson created — a persona that wore the deerstalker hat, smoked a pipe and lived at 221 Baker Street — all of which are untrue. It’s an interesting and meta point about how so much of what we know about Sherlock Holmes is mixed up — such as how his famous dialogue, “Elementary, my dear Watson” was never uttered by Conan Doyle’s creation at all. In fact, the phrase wasn’t even used until 1929 when the actor Clive Brook delivered the dialogue in the film The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
Mr Holmes attacks your well-nursed beliefs about the detective in other ways as well. McKellen’s Sherlock is fallible and fragile and his deterioration is undeniably poignant. This Sherlock has found that even at the height of his powers, his weapon of choice — logic — is no match for human nature.
To say that Sir Ian McKellen’s rendering of Sherlock is exemplary is unnecessary — you would expect nothing less from him. As Roger, Milo Parker is a delight. Just like Watson in the stories before him, it is his interaction with Holmes’ character that adds heft to the narrative. Like Watson before him, it is Roger who makes this Holmes more human. And in doing so, helps fans of the detective see just how much more admirable he is.