Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker and Hiroyuki Sanada
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: June 5th
We live in an era of Sherlock Holmes. While the character hasn’t ever really been outside the public consciousness since his inception, recently, we have seen him by name in two concurrent TV shows of considerable popularity, alongside a successful movie franchise. Going by other names, we see versions of him as doctors, pretend psychics or space travellers, all mimicking the Holmes formula of a charismatic, if unpersonable genius. It also seems as if nowadays a franchise isn’t a franchise until Benedict Cumberbatch has made an appearance, so there’s that.
And with popularity and characterisation that seems to defy both genre and, indeed, title, it was only a matter of time before someone asked what exactly it means to be Sherlock Holmes. This film, based on the 2005 Mitch Cullin novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, is all about just that. An opening shot of a stream train crossing the English countryside beckons us back to a time of adventure; it is 1947, and Sherlock Holmes is an old man. We meet him returning from a trip Japan, where he sought a plant with supposed regenerative properties. At first, this seems to be the central conflict: Here we have the world’s greatest detective, a genius admired the world over, but he has aged and his mind is going. He has retired to keep bees, we learn, a reference to a notion he took in one of the Conan Doyle stories, and lives with his housekeeper (Laura Linney, wonderful as ever) and her son (Milo Parker, a child actor who is thankfully as likeable as the film wants him to be). He is still bright, and we see domestic examples of his deductive prowess, but age has slowed him, both mentally and physically, and he is frustrated to no end.
The best of the movie’s small but talented cast, is easily Ian McKellen. Last year, stories circulated of McKellen tearing up on the set of The Hobbit due to the abundant green screen and heavy use of CGI. It was, he lamented, not why he got into acting. If this is true, then a role like Mr. Holmes definitely is. Fully embodying the character at two separate points of his life, McKellen sheds and gains thirty years effortlessly, all the while perfectly portraying an aged genius struggling with the meaning of the life he’s lived.
Mr. Holmes manages to avoid focusing too much on loss of youth as a premise, instead opting to highlight an issue that can be found in just about every iteration of the great detective, a question as old as the character, developing it gradually over the course of the film. Wrapped up in a small scale mystery that fits the tone of the plot, these questions are deftly balanced and move toward an ending that is satisfying, if very self contained.
This is probably the main weakness here. Though the nods and twists on old Holmes tropes are present, there is the danger that some may find this slow compared to the action detective we’ve come to know of late.
This is fan fiction that delves into character analysis at its heart, and it’s clear from the beginning that Holmes’ fast paced adventures are done. Indeed, it seems that this film has prepared itself for those who have come to see Holmes, as it is described onscreen, ‘do the thing’, and deduce all there is to know about someone with a glance.
All in all, it is a slow and steady, heartfelt take on the important parts of Sherlock Holmes, which will be gratifying for many but frustrating for some. At worst Mr. Holmes might be forgettable in a way, but at best it is a heartfelt, uplifting and intelligent tale with great affection and understanding for its source. Not entirely novel, but never really falling into the trap of an obvious plot line, Mr. Holmes is well worth the watch.