Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Bill Condon
Stars: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, John Sessions, Nicholas Rowe.
Ever since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first created the fictitious character of Sherlock Holmes in 1887, he has become one of the most enduring and popular character in detective fiction. Holmes has become a staple of the big screen, where he has been played by the likes of Basil Rathbone (who gave us arguably the definitive portrayal in 15 film appearances), Nicol Williamson, Christopher Plummer, and more recently Guy Ritchie turned him and Watson into a Victorian-era crime fighting dynamic duo. On the small screen he has been played by Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing, and more recently Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in a more contemporary take on the character.
Now we get Ian McKellen (Magneto from the X-Men series and Gandalf from The Lord Of The Rings series) who gives us a slightly different take on the character. It is 1947, and Holmes has long since retired from the sleuthing business and moved to a country cottage, named Cuckmere Haven, in a rural village in Sussex, where he indulges his hobby of beekeeping. His former housekeeper Mrs Hudson has died, and his caretaker is the officious and no-nonsense widow Mrs Munro (Laura Linney).
Holmes’ health is failing, as is the keen intellect that used to define him. He has just returned from a tiring trip to Japan to find a rare plant whose juice is supposed to possess regenerative powers. With his long time companion Watson dead, Holmes sets out to redress some of the misconceptions perpetuated in Watson’s fictional accounts of his investigations, because he had too much of a flair for the dramatic. Holmes says that he never wore that deerstalker hat and never smoked a meerschaum pipe. “I prefer cigars,” he snaps waspishly. Holmes also decides to document his final investigation, one which ended tragically and was never officially resolved to his satisfaction.
In an extended series of flashbacks we are taken back some 30 years. Holmes was hired by Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) to follow his wife Ann (Hattie Morahan), who was depressed and acting erratically. The emotional heart of the film though centres around the relationship that develops between Holmes and Mrs Munro’s young son Roger (played by newcomer Milo Parker), a precocious and intelligent boy who is curious about Holmes’ deductive abilities and wants to learn more. Through this unlikely friendship, Holmes learns the quality of empathy, something that was missing from his emotional makeup.
Mr Holmes is based on the novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind, written by Mitch Cullin, and faithfully adapted by tv writer Jeffrey Hatcher (The Mentalist, etc). But there are several subplots here, and a couple of them make for an uneasy fit in the overall scheme of things.
Mr Holmes reunites McKellen with director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, etc), who directed him to an Oscar nomination for his performance in Gods And Monsters, the biopic about 30s horror director James Whale. In both themes and tones Mr Holmes shares some common touches with that film. Condon’s direction is deliberate and measured, and the film unfolds at a leisurely pace. While turning the archetypal image of Holmes upside down, the film also pays dutiful homage to the popular depictions of the character, with Holmes even popping into a cinema to watch a film of his exploits, only to dismiss its fanciful nature.
McKellen’s fine and nuanced performance as the ailing Holmes who is troubled by his failing mental faculties is the glue that holds the film together and he puts an only too human face on the character. Parker is also very good, and he brings a wonderful mix of innocence and intelligence to his performance as the young boy who idolises Holmes, despite his prickly nature and flaws. Linney is not given much to do with her underdeveloped role.
Period detail lends authenticity to the settings, while Tobias A Schliessler’s sunny cinematography bathes the film in a warm glow and gives it an elegiac, lyrical quality. But the quirky take on this iconic character, and Condon’s sedate pacing and melancholy tone and lack of urgency may not be to everyone’s taste.