Sherlock Holmes is undoubtedly one of western fiction’s most recognisable protagonists; known for his adherence to logic, his abductive reasoning, and his pipe and deerstalker hat; Holmes is also a character who has seen a flurry of reinventions in recent years as different creators try to put a new spin on an old character. And so it is into a world where Robert Downey Jr. is perhaps the most recognisable of contemporary Holmeses that a film about the final days of the curmudgeonly detective is released; it is a time of the great detective’s life seldom glimpsed, and a fascinating character piece for one of this generations greatest acting talents.
Director Bill Condon’s Mr Holmes – an adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind – is about as far from Guy Ritchie’s titular slow-mo action fest as one can get; and it is all the better for it. If you walk into the cinema expecting septuagenarian Sir Ian McKellen – who plays the elderly Holmes – to be stripped to the waist brawling with thugs on the Victorian streets of London or engaged in over-the-top bullet-time gun battles across speeding trains then prepare to be sadly disappointed; Mr Holmes is set at a time when Holmes is unable to remember the name of his housekeeper’s young son Roger, unable to stand without the aid of his cane, and unable to recall the details of his final case–the case which forced him into a self-imposed exile effectively ending his sleuthing career. McKellen’s Holmes is a study in the movements, mannerisms and temperament of an old man – one who prides himself on his logic and intelligence – losing the very faculties which define him. Mr Holmes is a film of restraint where more recent examples of the detective’s exploits have been exercises in excess and McKellen’s performance is as good as one would expect from a man of his talent and experience.
Thematically Mr Holmes is a film about memory and the crippling effect its loss can have on even the brightest of minds. McKellen plays the eponymous role of the ninety-three-year-old who finds himself unable to finish the story of his last case which involved a young woman named Ann. The audience is left in the dark throughout the majority of the film as to the fate of Ann and exactly what the circumstances of her case were as the film flips through time like the pages of a penny dreadful. The temporal device is a clever one, allowing the audience to see Holmes at the height of his fame and power, and also at his lowest ebb. In the end though, the case is the dullest of the plots multiple threads, acting most effectively as a catalyst for the far more interesting parts of the film’s narrative; the nature of fiction and the mercurial realities of dementia, and some truly touching emotional beats along the way.
In a clever piece of intertextuality, it is revealed the reason behind Holmes’ desire to finish his story stems from the fictitious reputation and affectations his long-time confidante Dr John Watson presented to the world in the very books which made him famous; it is a beautiful layering device as the fictitious character of Holmes seeks to present a more believable and truthful account of his life than the Holmes found within the fiction. Holmes himself lampoons his own character with the line: “Fiction is worthless”.
If there is something which seems lacking about Mr Holmes it is its utter dearth of excitement. Where the film is compelling in its examination of character and its stucco-like exploration of fiction, it is sadly quite dull and plodding throughout much of its runtime. The main mystery is straightforward enough for even the most amateur of sleuths to figure out and many may mistake the twist for a simple case of incredulously poor filmmaking – rest assured, the filmmakers are on top of their game – and it is this lack of complexity which ultimately lets the film down. Its not enough to make Mr Holmes unenjoyable, far from it, it simply makes what could have been a truly special film simply good.