Sherlock Homes is back on the big screen, but this time around it’s a much different light that we’re seeing him in. This isn’t the brash, overly confident version of Holmes we see played by Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009), or the detached genius version played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC’s Sherlock. Instead we meet a frail and ill version of the classic character, who finds himself retired to his country home with nothing but the shadows of his former cases, along with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker) to keep him company.
It’s Ian McKellen who fills the shoes of the great detective, bringing a considerably more human take to the character, who’s full of humility in the face of his memory loss and the omen of his mortality. Excellent makeup ages McKellen considerably, with every crinkle and wrinkle on his face accentuated, whilst McKellen makes a point of labouring his every movement. Time, it seems, has caught up with Holmes.
The memory (or lack thereof) of his final case haunts him. Though his old partner Watson published tales of all of the duo’s great mysteries, he embellished the details, turning them into works of fiction, including the final case which shunted Holmes into retirement and reclusiveness. What really happened that made him leave his life at 221b Baker Street?
Whilst hints of his final case are littered throughout the film via flashbacks (featuring a remarkably de-aged McKellen), the main crux of the story takes place in the detective’s country home, where a second mystery bubbles surrounding the recurrent death of his beloved bees, which he tends to alongside Roger; forming what is the most interesting and also the sweetest pairing of the movie. As Sherlock creaks around his home, slowly mulling over his past, so the film creaks as well, grounding proceedings to an almost snail pace in its middle portion. The film’s present day may hold the most relatable version of Sherlock, but it’s his past which holds all of the intrigue.
Once we get to the meat of the great mystery behind the final case it’s all quite simple, very much in line with the tone of the film. Its reveal isn’t filled with pomp and circumstance, dealt with very matter-of-factly and yet fitting perfectly with the traits and pitfalls of the character of Sherlock Holmes. He’s a flawed man, unable to look beyond the simple facts he sees before him, and yet he finds that sometimes life is far more complex than this. The root cause of the death of his bees which becomes apparent almost immediately afterwards however seems to undercut film’s message somewhat, as though wanting to reassert Sherlock’s position as the great detective, small as his final act of sleuthery may be.
Two fellow cinema goers described the film firstly as being dry, and secondly as being the type of film you watch on a Sunday afternoon. Both descriptions are pretty apt and sum up the general tone of Mr. Holmes perfectly. It’s a very nicely put together film, elegantly shot, superbly performed by Ian McKellen and company, which whilst being a warming take on the character isn’t the most exciting we’ve had in recent years; albeit one that has a lot of heart. Retirement for Holmes isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but there’s still life in the old dog yet.
Slow but sweet, Mr. Holmes brings a fresh take on Sherlock, with Ian McKellen bringing a humility and gravity to the role. It’s just a shame that his final case isn’t a touch more compelling.
Rating (out of 5):