At this point even a revisionist version of Sherlock Holmes has grown stale. The character has become so ubiquitous, with its own resurgence in the last 10 years, that anyone who thinks they’re genuinely putting a new spin on the character is likely trying to pull one over on everyone, and Holmes himself would be the first to call their bluff. The Robert Downey Jr. version of Holmes in the Guy Ritchie films may have been a wacky street tough, but those films might’ve actually veered closest to the original Arthur Conan Doyle creations than anything.
Make no mistake, “Mr. Holmes”, the new film by Bill Condon that tries to demystify Holmes in his old age, is still very much a Sherlock Holmes film. The reason it succeeds, largely due to Ian McKellen’s worn and weary performance, is that Condon’s film actually caters to adults. Only about half of the film is a traditional Holmes caper, but with all of the fantasy and spectacle removed. The remainder is a film of identity, a man near the twilight of his life, past his glory days, grappling with his reality both internally and publically. The mythology Holmes has to contend with only deepens and sweetens this mystery.
In McKellen’s first moments on screen you can immediately sense his age and experience. Holmes is a grump, but he’s highly observant. He arrives at a country home where he tends to bees in his apiary, but in his old age he’s at the will of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). Roger is impressed by Holmes’s ability to know where people have been just by looking at them, and while Holmes still has his wit about him, his timing is far slower.
McKellen plays Holmes with a degree of vulnerability, something that’s been rare among his foreboding superhero and “Lord of the Rings” work. There’s a sense that he’s well past his prime. In a diary, a doctor instructs him to make a dot every time he’s forgotten something, and the pages turn into a constellation of connect the dots. And yet he still has an exact count of the number of times his bees have stung him: well over 7,000 times.
Roger has also taken an interest in a story Holmes is writing recounting one of his most famous and final cases. In it, he’s investigating the habits of a wife who seems consumed and hypnotized by the glass harmonica. The story on the movie screen is to Holmes a farce, and yet in writing his own version he can’t recall how it ended differently. All he knows is that it must’ve been a failure, or else it wouldn’t have been his last.
Condon takes us into that story within a story, and McKellen gets an opportunity to shine as a showman, not just a weary old man. This is the classic Holmes we know, in which Holmes puts together clues and deduces accusations in a whirlwind that’s otherwise hidden to the audience, but there’s more gravity to this story. It doesn’t resolve in the way we hope and it provides something of a death sentence to his own state of mind. It reveals him as human in what is perhaps the first time Holmes as a character has been brought to such a relatable level.
“Mr. Holmes” is stately in its visual presentation, a more regal period piece instead of a more stylized affair. And while much of the film is slow and concerned with the calm, pastoral setting of his country home, it finds some sensation and heavy-handed drama in a surprise trip to Hiroshima.
Only Holmes’s story truly carries “Mr. Holmes”, as Condon stumbles in making Mrs. Munro’s side plot challenges with raising her son meaningful to Holmes’s main tension. But Holmes’s revisionist history itself remains one worth investigating.