There can’t be many literary figures who have had more on-screen incarnations than Baker Streets finest detective, and with Mr. Holmes’ somewhat fresh take on Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s pipe-smoking sleuth, we have another to add to the growing anthology of Sherlock Holmes narratives.
Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A slight trick of the mind director Bill Condon reunites with his former Gods & Monsters star Sir Ian McKellan to provide us with a vastly different version of the great Holmes than any of us are probably used to.
Now 93-years-old and living out his final years of retirement in a remote Sussex farmhouse this is as far removed from the youthful, vibrant portrayals of both Benedict Cumberbatch and Robery Downey Jr as you could possibly get. Ditching most of the familiar Holmes canon, Condon instead presents us with what is essentially the story of an old man attempting to remember his past before his failing mind deserts him entirely. Gone are Watson, Mrs. Hudson, the Deer Stalker and 221b, gone is the man we all know as ‘Sherlock’ and in his place is a time-beaten McKellen who requires the use of a cane just to totter around his quaint surroundings.
Whilst Holmes attempts to recall the details of his final case – and also write his own memoirs in order to redress some of the fanciful balance that Watson placed on his adventures - there is a central motif that runs throughout Mr. Holmes that focuses on the distinct difference between fact and fiction. The Holmes that drives this narrative forward makes no attempt to hide his disdain at the ‘embellishment’ that was added to Watson’s famous recollections of their former cases together. Both Condon and McKellan manage to resist the temptation to focus the story on the fantastical literary myth that we are all accustomed to and instead lock their sights on the person beneath and - in a genius twist - have used the man himself to erode away his own mythology.
They say when faced with the truth or the legend that you should print the legend but Condon seems far more interested in the former and it only adds to what is a totally unique depiction of a universal character - this is an absolute world away from the scarcely believable versions of recent times and ensures that audiences will be split on the result. For all those who enjoy the originality and boldness of remoulding one of the world’s most recognised fictional figures, there will be just as many who bemoan the fact that this “isn’t the Sherlock Holmes I know” but, of course, that is the point.
This is none more so apparent than an exquisite scene in which Holmes makes a trip to the theatre to view the cinematic version of one of his old cases and allows McKellan the opportunity to deliver perhaps the stand-out line of the movie as he dismisses the big-screen version of himself as nothing more than a fantasy. It is an inescapable fact that what we are seeing here is the blatant desire to separate Holmes the man from Holmes the myth – even at one point having him admit that the very articles that have come to so famously represent him where nothing more than fabrications and window-dressing that added to his allure “The pipe was just a prop, I prefer a cigar” he utters in one scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Condon deconstructs the mythology of this great character and de-sensationalises what has become an almost super-heroic fantasy figure and anyone expecting to see the familiar whip-smart, deductive genius that they are used to is going to be sorely disappointed. That isn’t to say though that Mr Holmes is a failure – far from it. This is a welcome new spin on a familiar brand and is heartening proof that there is still room for a risk amongst Hollywood’s sure-thing franchise output.
Aswell as providing Mr Holmes with it’s solid backbone, it is also to McKellans great credit that he practically disappears into the role and further enhances his reputation at being able to ground the most fantastical of roles with his innate ability to always appear authentic and genuine. This is one of the finest, under-stated performances of his career and is absolutely central to all that Mr Holmes sets out to achieve.
McKellan provides a very brave and almost naked performance by stripping back the fabric of the well-recognised character we all know and peering at what lies beneath the intelligence, the genius and the almost machine-like efficiency. This is much less a story about an extraordinary man with astounding talents, but instead a look at an old man – a mortal like anyone else – beholdent to the ravages of time and the cruelty of ageing. A man who wants to make amends for his past but suffers the extra hindrance of not quite being able to remember what it is he wants to atone for.
Supporting McKellan in this unique take on the great detective is Laura Linney as his live-in house keeper Mrs Munro, and, pivotally, her young son Roger - relative newcomer Milo Parker. Whilst Linney is solid and dependable, it is hard to see her role as anything more than a replacement Mrs. Hudson but she does however manage to show a little more depth and strength than Baker Streets matriarch was ever afforded. Unquestionably, it is Parker’s impressive turn as Roger – and his excellent chemistry with McKellan that acts as the centre-piece in this production. Appearing as an almost-infant Watson, Roger’s bond with the ageing Holmes acts primarily as an emotional fulcrum whilst also, more importantly, helps to drive the narrative forward. It is through his interactions with the young boy that Holmes is able to slowly recollect the details of his past that have so far eluded him. As this clarity presents itself to Holmes he sets about writing his own memoirs – with the main emphasis on his final case – and presenting what he considers to be the fact that will accompany Watson’s fiction. The grandfather/grandson relationship that begins to form between Holmes and his young friend allows Condon the opportunity to present another unique aspect of Holmes that past film-makers and authors have never really displayed – here we see a man finally learning about the human condition and slowly starting to understand the human psyche. Holmes’ one great failing across nearly all of his many representations has been his inability to relate to people. He can read them, analyse them, understand their actions and motives but he has never been able to understand their emotions or empathise with their feelings – Mr. Holmes seeks to redress that chasm as we see the usually ice-cold ‘high-functioning sociopath’ not only feel his emotions but openly express them. This is the breaking of new ground for this particular character and an intriguing approach that deserves plenty of credit.
Thematically, there is a quintessentially British aesthetic throughout that will evoke images of a bygone time. The excellent cinematography takes in lush countrysides, beautiful shiny steam trains, immaculately dressed gents and prim and proper ladies – all of which help to provide a ‘classic’ feel to proceedings. This appears not as a film of this century but seems to fit more comfortably into a more nostalgic period of film-making which may or may not affect it’s ability to appeal to anyone below a certain age demographic. For those of whom familiarity doesn’t breed contempt there are one or two glimpses at a more recognised Holmes – primarily delivered with the use of flash-back – that transports us to the more conventional Baker St. surroundings that we are accustomed to. There are also a few of the well-known Holmes fireworks involving his at-times acerbic ability to deconstruct someone’s entire past movements and actions using nothing more than his tried-and-tested powers of deduction – described superbly by Roger as ‘that thing’ that Holmes does – which will also appeal to the more conformed members of the audience but on the whole this is as far removed from a Sherlock Holmes tale as you can imagine and again it is a risk that pays off handsomely for both Condon and particularly McKellan.
Whilst there is just enough mystery and intrigue to keep the traditionalists happy it may be best to dispel any notions of the Cumberbatch/Downey Jr. versions of the character before you sit down to watch Mr. Holmes. This isn’t a showcase of thrills or even an imaginative enigma that needs to be unravelled but simply the story of an old man fighting the wheels of time and the decay of his once-great mind.
Mr Holmes is an excellent piece of viewing but it would be remiss to claim it will be to everyone’s taste. Modern audiences may find this slow and plodding throughout the run-time and the more traditional Holmes enthusiasts will probably not take kindly to a depiction that actively seeks to destroy much of the pageantry that has gone into the character since his inception in the late 1800’s. Nevertheless, for those who enjoy seeing a fresh, daring take on a well-established character this should be everything you wished for. McKellan deserves the greatest of the plaudits as he provides arguably one of the greatest Holmes’ ever commited to screen and certainly the most authentic.
Whilst Mr Holmes may not be the most spectacular version of Sherlock you’ve ever seen it is easily the most daring, straightforward, and – above all – most ‘real’ versions that has ever been produced. Elementary indeed.