Mr. Holmes, 2015.
Directed by Bill Condon.
Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hattie Morahan, Hiroyuki Sanada and Patrick Kennedy.
An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman.
In a period where remakes, reboots, sequels and any other chance to bring an internationally recognised character back to the big screen, what a delight it was to watch this latest incarnation of the legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes. As even the title acknowledges, this is a film about respect for Holmes as an older man, and with that comes respect from the film makers; A third version of Guy Ritchie’s superman this is, thankfully, not.
Mr. Holmes does what so many revisionist tales of popular fiction dare not do; it deconstructs not only the character and the world we believed to be true. We’re told by Holmes that his partner Watson made up characteristics to romanticise the ideals of London’s greatest detective – he really prefers cigarettes to a pipe and never wore a Deerstalker – and there’s no Moriarty in sight. We’re not used to thinking about heroes after they’ve hung up their badge/cape/mask but here director Bill Condon and star Ian McKellen present us with that very embodiment for the large part of the movie. Holmes is an old man but still very much in control of his skills of deduction, those skills which made him the legendary figure so many grew up reading and admiring.
Yet despite still being an active and highly intelligent man, he is losing his memory and it is eating away at him from the very start of the picture. How clever and thematically important this is to the deconstruction of Holmes, to take away the essence of the man and remove the false layers to leave us with the core. Condon carries us through a series of flashbacks to Japan and London as Holmes, now retired and residing in Sussex, attempts to remember the intricacies of his final case – but it’s not to piece together the evidence as you may in a traditional whodunit, but rather to watch a man famous for his mind now having to reach deeper than ever into his repressed subconscious whilst his memory fades.
Writing names on his shirt sleeve to subvert the impression of losing his greatest asset, the truth Holmes desires ends up being one which challenges everything we knew. A single action from a man who once calculated every gesture a person made to deduce all there is to know about them is enough to trigger decades of closure left unfulfilled. So rare a simple tale as this has taken me on a psychological journey for a character I thought I knew, and rarer still is it that we have a 76-year-old actor in the lead, taking the character to new levels of depth. Ian McKellen’s Holmes is the saddest and darkest version of the character I’ve seen and it stems from a place so perfectly natural it’s a simple lesson in how to evolve a character beyond that what we expect. This is a film which humanises a legend and for the time in the cinema we forget he is fictional.
In the present day scenes the film adds the always wonderful Laura Linney as Holmes’ housekeeper, and their relationship between Holmes, her and her young son makes for a good counterbalance so the film isn’t always relying on McKellen’s lead. A twist towards the end at first felt uncomfortably added for needless dramatic effect, but I soon became aware of its importance – Holmes can see who (or what) is to blame but he never took the time to ask the right questions, too caught up in his own despair. This moment brings him back to what is important – the present and those he is eternally grateful to. For there is no changing what has been done, and the legend cannot be unwritten.
Mr. Holmes shows us how invested we can still be once a familiar character is brought back, but so few films treat their legends with such humanity and love as Condon and McKellen do here.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter