Sherlock Holmes is not the man we think he is, a skilled private investigator, yes, but Watson’s fanciful publications of his cases have elevated him beyond a real person’s ability to live up to. Now in his mid-nineties Holmes wishes to set the record straight on his last case and write a true account of the events, a more difficult task than one would assume, in fact it might be his toughest challenge considering the onset of alzheimer’s.
Like Superman and James Bond, Sherlock Holmes is a character that sees a new iteration every few years, often with new takes of his oft told stories.
Having had plenty of coverage over the last half decade, with the Warner Brothers films as well as a US and UK based TV show (Elementary, Sherlock), Homes is arguably as popular now as he has ever been, so what could possibly be done to make him interesting and/or relevant that hasn’t already been done?
The answer, it would seem, is bring him right down to Earth. The Holmes we are presented with in Mr. Holmes is not the Holmes whose adventures we’ve read about or watched over the years, it is the man behind that character, and with that interesting concept we are served a mystery film that is not a mystery film at all, but a touching and beautifully constructed character piece that’s core mystery amounts to an old man trying to remember something that is important to him. That’s not to suggest that there’s not plenty there for Holmes fans, in fact those who know the character best should find this juxtaposition logical and fresh.
That doesn’t sound very exciting does it? Well it isn’t, but it IS gripping. Veteran director, Bill Condon, has built a structure that has you as interested as any murder mystery would, even if the story is remarkably simple, and it being a BBC film, the period details are present, correct and expertly filmed, which is all well and good, but the true greatness of Mr. Holmes is within the performances.
A small side cast that includes Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Roger Allam and new child star, Milo Parker, all do a wonderful job, but are utterly overshadowed by a right-at-the-top-of-his-game, Sir Ian McKellen.
This film lives or dies by his performance, it’s a Sherlock Holmes film with a bare minimum of Holmsian investigation after all, and what he does is miraculous. The film flits back and forth from the ninety odd year-old Holmes of the nineteen forties and the fifty odd year-old Holmes of his last case. In the former McKellen delivers a character so convincingly frail that it looks like he could literally breath his last at any given second, while in the flashbacks he is the very picture of a dapper and serious professional. Words don’t really do it justice; just watch it and see for yourself.
Little more can be said to recommend it further, a more likely Holmes we are never likely to see, and if there is a film with finer acting this year I would be very, very surprised. Don’t expect high adventure, don’t even expect crime, just keep an open mind and get pulled along for the ride.