They say that one of the hallmarks of a truly great fictional character is that they have a sort of chimerical quality, being almost infinitely open to new interpretations. If so, then Sherlock Holmes definitely qualifies – over the years, as well as relatively ‘straight’ adaptations, we have been treated to Young Sherlock, Coke-fiend Sherlock, Gay Sherlock, Superhero Sherlock, Borderline-Aspergers Sherlock, and – most improbably of all – Stupid Sherlock. It was only a matter of time before Old Sherlock turned up, which has now happened in Bill Condon’s Mr Holmes.
Sir Ian McKellen brings all of his skill and star quality to bear as a frail and failing Great Detective, long retired to the Sussex Downs and the study of bee-keeping. The year being 1947, he has outlived all of his contemporaries, and is very reliant on his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney, very nearly doing an ooh-arr accent) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).
Holmes’ struggles to cope with the infirmities of old age take a number of forms – research into strange medicinal compounds, for one, in the hope this may revive his mental faculties, but also attempting to write a true account of his final case (Dr Watson having provided an inaccurately happy ending, as usual). The case concerns a worried husband, a troubled wife (Hattie Morahan), and hydrocrystalophone lessons, but Holmes’ own shortcomings as a judge of human nature also play a central role. Can Holmes remember what actually led to his retirement, and will it help him come to terms with himself?
My first thought, when hearing about the premise of Mr Holmes, was that it was a great idea for a movie, but when exactly would it be set? The poster, depicting McKellen in Edwardian or Victorian gear, did not bode well. However, Sherlockian purists – I wouldn’t call myself one, but I’m certainly some kind of fellow traveller – can relax. Well, up to a point. Doyle’s only precise reference to Holmes’ age has him a sixty-year-old in 1914, which Mr Holmes faithfully adheres to by making him 93 in 1947. On the other hand, Doyle also had Holmes retire to Sussex in 1903, whereas the film shows him still practising in Baker Street after the First World War. (Let’s not get into the whole issue of when and how many times Dr Watson got married, which the film also gets itself tangled up in.)
Looking on the bright side, this gives McKellen, who (if you were wondering) is 76, the chance to play Holmes at the age of 64 as well as 93. I would say this was certainly a case of a great actor having a crack at one of the great roles, rather than an era-defining Holmes: McKellen being McKellen, he brings his customary drollness, playfulness, and sardonic wit to Holmes – he’s always quite clearly the smartest man in the room, and knows it, but perhaps he’s just a bit too pleased about it. Certainly you can’t imagine him spending two days in a depressive funk. Regardless, it is a great performance, and the central column around which the rest of the film is constructed.
In any case, the film carves itself out some room for maneuver by adhering to the customary trope that Watson’s stories featured a slightly fictionalised Holmes, and that this is the slightly-different genuine article. So the deerstalker and pipe were just inventions of the illustrator, Holmes and Watson lived somewhere other than 221B, and so on. Holmes being aware of his own legend makes for some nice moments, especially when he goes to see a film based on his adventures (the big-screen Holmes is not played by Basil Rathbone, as you might expect, but a game Nicholas Rowe – the deeper joke being that Rowe himself played young Sherlock in the 1986 film of that name, in which he was cast apparently because of his resemblance to Rathbone!).
All of this is really peripheral stuff, only really of interest to die-hard Sherlockians: what is the film like as a piece of entertainment? Well, describing it as an account of Holmes’ last case, as some of the publicity very nearly does, is a bit misleading – I went to see the film with a friend who was expecting a conventional crime thriller, and what they got was something disconcertingly different. Mysteries are solved, but not really crimes – what the film is really about is Holmes’ relationships with those around him. The film is structured so that most of the iconic figures from the canon don’t really appear – no Watson (not really), no Mrs Hudson, no Lestrade, no Irene Adler or Moriarty, the only exception being Mycroft (Holmes’ older brother is played by the 62-year-old John Sessions, but let’s not go there) – and so it revolves around his dealings with the Munros, the figures in the case, and a Japanese family. (A very striking subplot concerns a visit by Holmes to American-occupied Japan, such an unexpected juxtaposition that it instantly becomes fascinating.)
It is very much a character piece rather than a thriller or detective story, and a thoughtful and touching one, with the relationship between Holmes and Roger being especially poignant. The different subplots drift past each other, striking odd and unexpected connections, but the film is really driven by its performances, which are excellent.
Another way in which the film is a recognisably 21st-century take on Sherlock Holmes is its decision to interpret Holmes’ lack of interest in human emotion as being symptomatic of some kind of personal flaw, rather than simply a personal choice. Doyle certainly didn’t seem to be writing about someone sociopathic, but that seems to be the default interpretation of the character these days, and it’s certainly one which Mr Holmes adheres to. Then again, if you’re trying to do a personal drama about a character who’s essentially a thinking machine, I suppose you have to find some kind of chink in the armour.
The film is handsomely mounted, with polished direction and a fine score, and the actors are served well by the script. As a fan of the character, I enjoyed Mr Holmes a lot: it shows just the right amount of respect for the source, while still finding a way to tell its own story distinctively. A fine, thoughtful, mature drama.