In Mr. Holmes, Sir Ian McKellen gives a stunning portrait of an ageing Sherlock, dealing with the on-set of dementia and senility which is robbing the once Great Detective of his once great mind. This adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind’ gives us an image of the ‘real’ Sherlock, now long retired and tending to his bees on the south coast where he lives with his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son (Milo Parker).
The story follows Holmes’ attempts to remember the details of his long-forgotten final case which was the cause of his abandonment of the profession and indeed of London, slowly presented to us in flashbacks to the still sharp Holmes as he gradually pieces the facts together. Reduced to scribbling names on his cuffs in case he forgets with whom he is speaking, McKellen is excellent in conveying the frustration, anger and unknown guilt of a mind that can no longer be entirely trusted. This struggle, we learn, led to a trip to Japan to secure a plant which Holmes believes may help to rejuvenate his mind before it’s too late, but the journey has ultimately left him exhausted.
Reunited here with his ‘Gods and Monsters’ director Bill Condon, it is clear that the relationship between the two inspires each to produce some of their best work. They again explore the ideas of the realities that lay behind the myths we create, as we find a Sherlock in many ways quite unlike that presented in the stories or in previous adaptations, but who still struggles to truly understand the people around him. When Holmes describes the famous deer-stalker hat as a creation of Dr. Watson’s ‘penny-dreadful’ versions of his cases, we are reminded to forget our preconceptions of the man.
The post World War Two setting is well achieved, while the flashbacks to thirty years earlier are accompanied with a haze and glow that encourage us to question their veracity; some of these fleeting visions of the past are repeated at different moments as Holmes struggles to grasp their meaning. The scenes set in Japan, however, lose some of their power as they’re accompanied by a slightly comical Japanese flute-based score not in keeping with the rest of the film, diminishing their gravity.
What we don’t get here, which may be disappointing to some, is ‘The Last Great Case’ of Sherlock’s career, but instead a gradual investigation into what has led him to this point in his life. Ultimately it is an investigation into the mystery that has always eluded him, that of ‘humanity’. As such, the main interest lies in the relationship that develops with young Roger, played here by Milo Parker who is particularly impressive in his ability to exist as a child who is not completely annoying, and he more than holds his own opposite McKellen. The mischievous grins and glances they share as they guiltily try to keep their secrets from Roger’s mother helps the film retain a lighter tone around its darker issues.
At times things can feel a little muddled but the strength of McKellen’s performance more than makes up for any potential mawkish sentimentality that crops up on occasion. This isn’t a great film but it is built on a great central performance, while the supporting cast support wonderfully. Inter-cut with moments of his old clarity, the increasing frailty and confusion that McKellen portrays are at times heart-breaking and inspiring. ‘Mr Holmes’ is perhaps a relatively average film, but the presence here of Sir Ian McKellen transforms it into something much more.
★ ★ ★ ★
Written by Christopher J. Smith
Mr Holmes is on wide release in UK Cinemas now – you can watch the trailer here.