Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Sir Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker
Running time: 104 minutes
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most adapted literary characters; from fighting Nazis in the 1940s to international terrorists in 2014, Holmes has existed in hundreds of guises. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original words have been adapted to suit every modern audience. With so many interpretations, it’s possible to fear that there is nowhere for the canon to go. Fortunately, Mr. Holmes proves any such fears wrong; it extends beyond the boundaries of usual Sherlock Holmes films, whilst remaining faithful to their ethos. Aided by a brilliant cast, Bill Condon’s production is a worthy addition to the catalogue.
Adapted from Mitch Cullin’s 2005 book, A Slight Trick of the Mind, the film focuses on the characters and their relationships with each other, instead of the traditional murder mystery/thriller format. Whilst this was initially disappointing, the script was strong enough to dissipate any negative feelings. The writer includes several fun and quirky moments of Holmes resentfully dealing with the consequences of Doctor Watson’s work. For those who don’t know, most of the Sherlock Holmes stories are written from the point of view of Watson reporting on Holmes’ cases. In Mr. Holmes, Holmes goes to visit the cinema to see himself on screen and baulks at the inaccuracies. Similar jokes about the pipe and deerstalker being fictional inventions are included to great effect.
The elderly Sherlock Holmes (Sir Ian McKellen) is introduced as he travels through the -gloriously filmed- English countryside on a steam train. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it looks wonderful and creates an immediate sense of atmosphere. He has retired from detection following a failure of a case; the details of which he cannot remember. The events are gradually revealed through various flashbacks, as the facts gradually return to his memory. Whilst this plotline, involving a mysterious music teacher and a potential marital murder, is the tent pole of the film, it isn’t really the point.
The true purpose of the film is to explore the character of Sherlock Holmes, to explore why he would retire from detection and how he’d cope with an aging body. McKellen gives a spellbinding performance as the frustrated, bitter and lonely Holmes; it is a performance so far removed from his hammed-up role in Vicious it’s almost impossible to believe they are the work of the same actor. Every line is delivered with absolute precision. The distinction between the old Holmes and the Holmes in the flashback sequences demonstrates how clear a performance it is; the hawk-like stare over newspapers and quick dashes to keep up with suspects contrasts wonderfully with the worn-out character from the main body of the film.
All of the cast work well in their respective roles. Milo Parker is especially impressive as the young son of Holmes’ housekeeper; finding good, believable and likeable child actors is often difficult, but they chose well. One of my favourite actresses, Frances de la Tour, has a terrifically funny cameo appearance as a European teacher that is delivered with her usual style and gusto. The small character moments are what remain in the memory after the film has finished and demonstrated the attention paid to even the shortest scene.
It is a shame the plot is rather minimal. It isn’t a mystery or a thriller, but a complex character study. McKellen’s towering performance, aided by a strong supporting cast and script, pull the film away from any usual Sherlock Holmes film; making it a credible piece of cinema in its own right. Mr. Holmes is a terrific piece of British film-making, which demonstrates the best of our acting, writing and production talent.