The Second World War has recently ended and in a remote Sussex cottage lives a crotchety old man, who wants nothing in life than to live out his final years tending to his bees. His name is Sherlock Holmes.
There are numerous pastiches of Sherlock Holmes to be found in literature and film: There’s the steampunk revisionist adventures of Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law; The bawdy slapstick of Without A Clue saw Michael Caine pretending to the super sleuth; Young Sherlock Holmes stretched the patience of the heartiest champion of Doyle’s canon. In fact only this year, William Gillete’s 1916 feature Sherlock Holmes was rediscovered and given a home release. Yes, there are many portraits. Most of them sharing a common theme of Holmes in his prime. Which is what makes Mr Holmes immediately stand out from its forbearers.
Played by Ian McKellan, we see the once great detective now out to pasture. His once coveted memory failing, he takes to writing names of those people he forgets on his shirt cuffs. He hides himself away from the gawping eyes of those who recognize him from the stories by his late friend, Dr John Watson. As a tonic to the numerous fabrications he found in Watson’s work, Holmes has taken to writing up a case he feels was particularly egregious with the facts.
McKellan is simply exquisite as the sleuth. No longer going up against Moriarty, his greatest enemy is the onset of dementia and a feeling of guilt for a case long forgotten. Through the use of flashbacks, McKellan also gets to play Holmes in a manner we may be more accustomed to. Aging but still pompous, this ‘younger’ Holmes is in his element as he cracks the case of a missing wife. The conclusion of which now escapes him in his winter years.
It would be amiss to overlook the virtues of McKellen’s co-stars, Laura Linney and Milo Parker, who play Holmes’ housekeeper, Mrs Munro and her son, Roger respectively. Their scenes together are beautifully written and acted as the mother tries to remind her son of a deceased father he’s too young to remember.
Like the book it was based on – A Slight Trick of the Mind – the second set of flashbacks that see Holmes travel to Japan after the Hiroshima bombing feel superfluous. Whilst Holmes’ interactions with Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) eventually tie into the film’s themes of forgiveness and loss, it feels like it overeggs the pudding.
However, we shouldn’t let trivial matters get in the way of the facts. Mr Holmes is a wonderful, emotional portrait of a character that will be dear to many people. The delicate touch of the screenplay and the strength of the performances on display are a testament not only to an iconic literary character but to the human spirit.