Release Date: 19 June 2015
Running Time: 104 min
Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Roger Allam, Hattie Morahan
Like his literary contemporary Dracula, Sherlock Holmes has been in more films than you can shake a pipe at. There’s been musicals, comedies and big blockbusters along the way but chances are you’ve not seen a film about the world’s greatest detective quite like Mr. Holmes.
It’s 1947 and Sherlock Holmes, now 93, spends most of his time in the garden of his cottage on the south coast; tending to the bees he keeps in an apiary. Unsteady on his feet and increasingly forgetful, the long retired Holmes is haunted by confused memories of his last ever case and convinced that royal jelly harvested from the hive will help stave off his encroaching senility. Cut off from the world at large – something that not only allows for some lush photography of pleasant English countryside but also keeps Holmes closer to his Victorian roots than post-war London would – he is reliant on the care of his put upon housekeeper Mrs Munro and her young son Roger.
What’s unique about Mr. Holmes is that outside of the lead’s faltering memories of the case that sent him into retirement there’s no crime to be solved or detective work to be done. The focus instead is what happens to an icon when they’ve outlived their time and are incapable of escaping the long shadow of their own greatness. In that regard it resembles Richard Lester’s underrated Robin and Marian, the story of an older Robin Hood back from the Crusades and struggling to live up to his own legend in England. There’s something tragic about seeing the once razor sharp mind of the renowned Sherlock Holmes so badly dulled with age and it’s safe to say that with themes of aging, memory, regret and death Mr. Holmes is a bit more sombre than the usual sturm und drang of summer multiplex fare.
The ninth film in director Bill Condon’s eclectic (or scattergun) career – one that includes a sequel to Candyman, two Twilight films, a musical starring Eddie Murphy and 2013s risible Wikileaks drama The Fifth Estate – Mr. Holmes finds Condon back at work with Ian McKellen, the star of his most lauded film Gods and Monsters. This feels thematically similar, focussing on the twilight days of a venerated and misunderstood man (in the case of Gods and Monsters fabled horror auteur James Whale) and each film also boasts a captivating central performance from leading man McKellen.
With a wheezing, raspy performance, all stooped shoulders and shuffling feet, McKellen gives a wonderfully physical turn in the title role. His Holmes is simultaneously imperious and childlike, visibly struggling at times to place faces and names and deeply upset and frustrated by it all. It’s unmistakably Sherlock, yet brings a sadness and vulnerability to the character that most Holmes films seem unwilling to explore.
In spite of its riveting central performance however, Mr. Holmes often struggles under the weight of a tricksy non-linear narrative. There are perhaps one too many different plot threads for Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher to tie up satisfactorily and at times the film, like the central character, seems burdened by the iconic status afforded to him. Still, it’s refreshing to see a good old-fashioned drama of this ilk where the biggest special effects are the make-up and performance of its leading man.