Handed the task of playing Sherlock Holmes at age 93, a lesser actor than Ian McKellen might have opted for a twinkly, benign portrayal of old age. But in the title role of Mr. Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest creation is finding life an onerous, even physically painful business. It can feel like a struggle even to arise from a chair; and his famously acute mind is starting to fall prey to dementia.
McKellen, then, does nothing to sentimentalise the twilight years of his character; and it’s something of a jolt when flashbacks to the story show him playing Holmes, far sprightlier and around 60. (Sir Ian, for the record, is 76.)
A quiet and reflective film
Mr. Holmes, adapted from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, is a quiet, reflective film. Sherlock Holmes has retired from detective work, and is living a tranquil life in rural Kent, where he keeps bees. He lives with Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a no-nonsense widowed housekeeper, and her 10 year old son Roger (Milo Parker), who hero-worships the old man.
In this version of Holmes’s life, he is embarrassed by his own fame, embellished by the fictional accounts of his friend John Watson, which established the image of the master sleuth with his deerstalker and pipe.
We initially see Holmes exhausted after a visit to Japan, where a man with whom he had exchanged letters told him of a substance called ‘prickly ash’, which can ward off dementia. Troubled by his failing memory, Holmes has journeyed to meet the man, and they find this remarkable substance in the waste land of Hiroshima.
Holmes' last case
Back in England, Holmes tries in vain to recall the details of his last case, which caused him to retire from his profession. It involved a woman named Mrs Kelmot (the excellent Hattie Morahan) who seemed intent on murdering her husband but was actually plotting her own death. There’s also a suspenseful sequence involving the boy Roger, and Holmes’s bees.
It says much for the resonance of Conan Doyle’s most famous character that he can be represented in so many different ways. McKellen’s portrayal of Holmes is at the opposite extreme to Benedict Cumberbatch’s playful yet unhinged version in TV’s Sherlock, and wildly different from the fast-moving, funny, somewhat laddish Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. The great Billy Wilder offered the sadly underrated Private Life of Sherlock Holmes back in 1970, while the Holmes legend was spoofed in The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976).
A fresh take on a great detective
McKellen at least offers a fresh take on the great detective, and Mr. Holmes is a pleasant, civilised entertainment. Still, it has its problems: it feels as if the various sub-plots are elbowing each other out of the way to plead for our attention, and the film’s focus sometimes gets confused. Yet it doesn’t feel frenetic; quite the opposite. One understands that this later-life story lends itself to a gentler place, but at times Mr. Holmes feels too languid for its own good.
None of this detracts from McKellen’s subtle, detailed work, which is effectively a masterclass in screen acting. Mr. Holmes was directed by Bill Condon, who last worked with McKellen in Gods and Monsters (1999), when he played Hollywood horror director James Whale, and was Oscar-nominated. McKellen now credits Condon for teaching him the nuances of acting to a camera; it would be no surprise if McKellen found himself in contention for awards again for playing Mr. Holmes.