A reunion between Ian McKellen and his Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon, Mr. Holmes is similarly concerned with the latter days of a pop culture figure. Instead of a real life figure like Gods and Monsters’ subject (film director James Whale), Mr. Holmes focuses on a fictional figure, Sherlock Holmes. Condon’s film, though, takes a particularly innovative approach, one frankly more interesting than the BBC and Guy Ritchie takes that have pervaded these last few years.
Based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mr. Holmes follows an aged, retired Holmes looking back on his life, his exploits documented in popular books written by his friend John Watson, stories that lent him a degree of celebrity but tended to favour a lot of fabricated embellishments of which he wasn’t a fan. “I prefer a cigar,” he says, when someone asks him about his trademark pipe, which is itself an allusion to a moment in Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a work similarly interested in the man behind the public facade, albeit in a more parodic, comedic manner.
Condon and Cullin’s Holmes objects not just to the visual fabrications of Watson’s words, but in particular how Holmes’ very last case was presented. At age 93, in 1947, he decides to view the pantomime-esque cinematic adaptation of the final story (“Every plot twist came with a twirl of a moustache and ended with an exclamation mark”), only to find a case resolution completely unfamiliar to him. This was the case that caused him to quit his profession and retire to the Sussex countryside, yet Watson (long dead at this point) gave him a ‘happy’ ending that suggests no failure. The trouble is that the increasingly senile Holmes, eager to put pen to paper and document the ‘true’ Sherlock Holmes at least once, finds recollection of the details a mystery in itself, and his health proves another barrier to overcome, as well as his potentially negative influence on the young son (Milo Parker) of his housekeeper (Laura Linney, nailing the local accent).
In a manner befitting its debunking of the Sherlock legend, much of the film’s strength is how unlike the Conan Doyle tales and other adaptations it is. Mr. Holmes is more freeform and laidback, and though a mystery or two drives its multiple flashback structure (there’s a Japan-related conundrum), depression and comprehension of nuances beyond the cold, hard facts are the key factors. The man who knows everything finally comes to understand the psychological impossibilities of his calculated approach to human behaviour and reasoning.
As a psychologically probing film, Mr. Holmes is quite magnificent in its deceptively slight nature, and though not particularly adventurous aesthetically, it does conjure some arresting images, such as the sight of Sherlock Holmes of all people walking through ravaged Hiroshima in 1947. The tender performance of McKellen, as might be expected, is a reliable anchor keeping things afloat; the actor seemingly relishing a major turn free of mutants and wizardry — a fantasy icon on fine form as a man not fond of the fantastic.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.