Given that Sherlock Holmes is one of the most iconic fictional characters ever created and has to be one of the most depicted on the screen, this new interpretation by Sir Ian McKellen is up there with the best. Reunited with his Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon after seventeen years, McKellen brings his formidable gifts to bear in a vanity-shedding performance as the nintey three year old Holmes living in quiet retirement with his beloved bees in rural postwar Kent.
Joining McKellen are Laura Linney (The Big C) as his widowed housekeeper Mrs Munro and relative newcomer Milo Parker (Robert Overlords) as her inquisitive son Roger. On the surface this is a simple generational tale of a type beloved of Far Eastern and European cinema of the relationship between an aged person and a child.
In Mr Holmes, however, Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, adapting Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, have woven a densely-structured tapestry of themes and resonances that go far beyond a simple story of an old man teaching a boy to look after bees.
At the core is Holmes’s final case from thirty years earlier, the outcome of which pushed him into retirement. At Roger’s insistence, Sherlock decides it is finally time to commit the true story of his last case to paper before his once-formidable mental acuity is finally dimmed by age.
The narrative is complex and incorporates numerous flashbacks to different times and places but Condon skilfully incorporates these and at no time is the viewer left confused by proceedings, and portraying Holmes at the ages of ninety three and sixty three, McKellen brings his customary subtlety and range.
When first encountered, Holmes is returning home from an exhausting trip to post-bomb Hiroshima and McKellen spares the audience nothing in his depiction of a man ground down by age and failing faculties. In contrast is his Holmes from thirty years earlier, a man at the height of his powers and hubris, exquisitely dressed and brimming with his own self-importance.
In this story, as in the current BBC incarnation, Holmes is one of the greatest celebrities of his age and there is much play made with the notion of fame and celebrity, at one point Holmes attending a luridly melodramatic film adaptation of Dr Watson’s account of the aforementioned final case and, to make things even more meta, the actor playing Holmes is Nicholas Rowe, formerly the star of Barry Levinson’s 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes.
Linney offers a fine study in exasperation as she struggles to reconcile both her own and her son’s needs with those of the increasingly cantankerous living legend.
As the boy, young Parker has tremendous chemistry with Sir Ian as Roger forms a captivatingly spiky relationship with the old man, and perhaps predictably the emotional heart of the story is the notion of family and its importance across the generations in a time of flux.
Although Holmes has never married, as the film progresses it is clear that Mrs Munro and Roger are the surrogate daughter and grandson he so desperately needs in his life. Despite incorporating several emotionally-charged storylines, the film never descends into bathos or cheap sentiment and despite an overly-melodramatic final turn it proves a very satisfying and mature experience.
In a packed pantheon, Mr Holmes is definitely one of the best iterations in the canon.