Dir: Bill Condon
You have to wonder if the title of this touching one-off entry into the great detective’s filmed canon is an implicit attempt to redress some sort of balance. Now that the bombastic early brilliance of that contemporary TV upstart Sherlock has floundered in self-parody in later series, the title of this (also BBC funded) project reflects a reassuring return to tradition. Back in tune with the time of its original setting, it’s all smoking jackets and polite formality, for a more familiar, more demure depiction of his legendary deductive reasoning.
Conan Doyle wrote his adventures as if penned by Dr. Watson, and this adaptation wittily extends the idea by using Watson’s tendency for ‘exaggeration’ as a device for claiming Holmes was, in fact, real. In one of the first flashbacks to his younger self, he’s looking down on 221B from his true address across the road. A necessary deception to keep the tourists both happy, and comfortably at bay, he explains to a client. And, of course, he never actually wore the deerstalker …just another embellishment to build mystique. His famous companion, by the way, makes only the briefest appearance, in retrospect, his face hidden. It supports the poignant explanation that they’ve become estranged by that point. It also neatly sidesteps the issue of which actor would play him. Because this venture is decidedly not about the duo that’s proven to be one of popular culture’s most enduring: the main implication of that title is a wish to focus solely on Holmes himself. The man behind the magnifying glass.
Now 93, long retired, struggling with increasing frailty, he’s in the care of housekeeper Mrs Monroe (Laura Linney), finding most inspiration in the innocent company of her school-age son Roger. With his usual sidekick sidelined, young Milo Parker’s sweet performance opposite Ian McKellan is core to the film’s success. They tend bees in the grounds of Monroe’s country cottage together, the fragile ex-detective teaching Roger as he goes, revealing how his last case unfolded under the youngster’s beguiled insistence. Expanding on his fondness for ‘alternative substances’, he’s optimistically experimenting with anti-ageing remedies, harvesting the bees’ Royal Jelly for its medicinal properties, and investigating other ‘miracle’ cures from the Far East. Thus we alternate in timeline between his present twilight years, his recollections of Japanese excursions in search of ‘Prickly Ash’, and his fractured memories of that final mystery. As amnesia threatens to become his most insurmountable enemy, the enigma of exactly why it proved to be his last continues to fox and frustrate him.
Primarily, Mr. Holmes is a superlative exhibition of McKellan’s craft. He glides between a portrayal of a fading legend, and a time when his renowned powers were still at their peak (well, almost). It’s a joy to revel in the acting prowess of one of the silver screen’s finest. It’s a much more intimate display than his larger-than-life fantasies Gandalf or Magneto, and, with greater space to appreciate it, far more rewarding. And it does feel like he was born to play the character. By drawing on the imagined last chapters of Holmes’ life, you feel McKellan was secured in the role in the nick of time, with a set-up that cleverly draws dividends from his vintage.
Some might see it as slow moving, but, in line with Conan Doyle’s written tales, it’s rear-loaded to supply all the payback at the very end. And once its triple-locked intrigues are satisfyingly resolved, you just want to go back and enjoy this heartening homage to character and performer all over again. Maybe you’ll pick out some early clues with the benefit of hindsight. But mainly you’ll be trying to unravel the overarching thespian mystery of just how McKellan does it.
★ ★ ★ ★