Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating property, from a lot of perspectives, but I’ve always found him exceptionally fascinating. Sherlock Holmes as been in film since literally the word go, as the first film adaptation of his work was in 1900, in a 30 second short film called Sherlock Holmes Baffled. Since then there have been dozens, perhaps hundreds of films and TV adaptations, ranging from animated, to live action, to comedy, to sci-fi to even medical drama.
I say this to give context for how hard it is to come up with a new spin on Sherlock Holmes (as filtered through my preferred medium). Holmes is the Patient Zero for a lot of common fandom stuff, including fanfiction, so basically every aspect of him has been covered, for better or for worse. So when I say that Mr. Holmes feels like an original take on the character, that’s all relative.
Since Mr. Holmes is centered around a character who has existed for over a 125 years, I won’t bore you too much by telling you who he is, and this movie frames itself as a sequel to the original books, framing Watson’s books as exaggerated, fanciful versions of what happened. The story picks up in the aftermath of World War II, where a 93 year old Sherlock (Sir Ian McKellen) has been in seclusion for 30 years, and is now feeble and rapidly growing senile
As the plot begins, Sherlock has returned from Japan to his secluded cottage with a Prickly Ash tree, hoping to use to stave off his senility, so that he can write the story of his final case, the one that caused him to retire, before his mind goes completely. While there, he begins to befriend the son of his housekeeper, Roger (Milo Parker) who helps him tend his bees (the bees are important, or I wouldn’t mention them).
Picking up with a character as incredibly iconic as Sherlock Holmes is already risky, but the movie consciously and intentionally strips him of all of his iconography and secondary characters, with Watson, Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson all dead, and his famous coat and hat addressed as inventions of the illustrator (which is pretty accurate to the books).
This is intended as a fairly original take on Holmes as a character, as the senility is rapidly robbing him of his famous mind and his fame has made people think his deductions are simply parlor tricks. It’s an interesting interpretation of an older Holmes, bitter and lonely, having spent so much time in self imposed exile that his already reduced social skills have been worn down to next to nothing.
It’s primarily Ian McKellen’s show, and more than anything, he is the reason to go see this movie. Sir Ian is a fantastic actor, and he is incredibly memorable as Holmes, capturing his bitterness at feeling his mind slip away and his loneliness, as he feels abandoned by everyone. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that with a lesser actor in the part, this movie would be getting a substantially more negative review.
Part of that is the script. Examining an older, more bitter and angry Holmes is a fascinating idea, but the movie is always threatening to tip over into schmaltz, until it finally does. I’m not saying this movie would have better with a bleaker or sadder ending… oh wait, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Well it would have fit with the broader story and theme better is all.
The other letdown comes from the direction. It’s never bad it’s just…look it was directed by Bill Condon (whose best movie is still Kinsey) and as a director, he’s never risen above average…and frequently fallen below it; Don’t think I forgot you directed the last 2 Twilight movies Bill. It’s got a couple good shots and edits, but on the whole it’s not a particularly impressively directed movie, and the use of flashbacks (especially the flashbacks to Holmes visiting Japan) is overall kind of clumsy.
Still, as long as Ian is here to protect us, none of this is particularly bothersome. The third act switch into schmaltz (I’m enjoying using that word) should be a hard tone shift, but Sir Ian sells it hard and makes it work. Hell, even the awkward flashback use is worth it just to see Ian as a younger Sherlock actually solving a case.
McKellen doesn’t get a ton of help from his supporting cast. Laura Linney is in it as his housekeeper, and she’s serviceable, but her character never really evolves past a pursed lip and a look of disapproval, which is disappointing as Linney is a great actress, and I’d like to see more of her. Her son is ably played, nothing special, but very good for a child actor, and really the fact that he has to spend the majority of his scenes keeping up with someone who has been acting since before his parents were born makes it impressive enough.
I admit, this review might be a little biased by what surrounds it. Summer is winding down; August is nearly upon us, and with it, the deluge of movies whose producers thought couldn’t compete in June or July. Overall, it’s been a pretty crappy year, with only the occasional Mad Max or Ant-Man to keep us going. So if I find a well put together and entertaining, if flawed, movie like Mr. Holmes, you bet your ass I’m gonna recommend it. I mean, it’s got Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes. What else do you want?
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s on the side of any movie that portrays wasps as unambiguously villainous.
– excellent performance from Ian McKellen
– solid story
– dialogue is well written and believable
– mediocre direction
– slightly awkward flashback use
– not great supporting cast