Ian McKellen and Bill Condon have done it again, but in perhaps the exact opposite fashion to how they approached their stunning not-really-biopic of James Wale, GODS AND MONSTERS. In that film they wrapped a real person in the trappings of fiction, here they take a fictional character and present him as a real, grounded person.
Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), consulting detective extraordinaire, is retired. He has been for some time, and potters away his twilight years while battling the twin demons of guilt and dementia. As he tends his bees and tries to recall an unsolved case that ended particularly badly, he drives his housekeeper (Laura Linney) to distraction and befriends her inquisitive young son (Milo Parker).
It’s equally tragic and amusing to see that the great Sherlock Holmes, once the scourge of criminal masterminds everywhere, is reduced to investigating a redundant bee murder-mystery to occupy himself in his retirement. It’s a compelling little element of the story nonetheless, and the closest thing in the film we ever actually get to Sherlock’s great cases, which we only see fragmented flashbacks of (usually involving jealous husbands) or black-and-white film-within-film dramatisations (an amusing conceit). With the help of young Roger, this is Holmes proving to himself as much as the world observing him that there’s still something going on in the old grey matter.
Mr. Holmes revels in blending reality and fiction though the foggy prism of dementia. Like Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, it is Dr Watson who retells Holmes’ cases, only in this world the public has lapped these tales up and sees the detective as a minor celebrity. It’s a very deliberate move not to show Watson properly in flashbacks – I doubt this version of Sherlock even remembers what his old friend looked like. It’s a very hard-hitting visual way of representing an ailing mind (not to mention a classic example of “show, don’t tell”) when Holmes’ doctor (a snide Roger Allam) asks him to keep a diary with a mark on the page for every time he forgets a name, date, or event. The doctor later flips though the pages and we see black splodges rapidly spread like a pandemic eclipsing the white paper. Holmes’ brilliance is slipping through his fingers and nothing, not brisk ocean swims, nor the engaging company of a young protégé nor obscure Japanese homeopathic remedies can stop it.
Anyone with an elderly ailing relative might find elements of this film upsetting. Through a combination of flawless makeup and McKellen’s measured turn as the ailing sleuth, you’re never in doubt that you’re watching a remarkable man as a shadow of his former self. Director Bill Condon and McKellen clearly gel, and seventeen years after Gods and Monsters they create another performance for the ages together. Whereas Whale was charming and benign on the outside with a seriously dark and damaged core, McKellen’s Holmes has a prickly personality and is often consumed by his own legend, but can be a kind-hearted and supportive mentor to young Roger (Milo Parker) and is clearly becoming equally frustrated at and frightened by his loss of faculties.
Laura Linney’s Mrs Munro isn’t cruel for wanting to move away with her son and leave Mr Holmes to his guilt and what remains of his memories, but she is completely and utterly worn down by the demands of the job that should by rights be that of a nurse, not a housekeeper. It’s a dignified and exhausted performance from her with her charge deeply frustrating in his behaviour and habits, only very occasionally showing a flash of brilliance (more impressive to her star-struck son) to make it all worthwhile.
While it could probably stand to be a little longer, and to explore his early greatness in more depth, Mr. Holmes isn’t aiming to be a new take on a Sherlock Holmes film, but rather explore how cruelly dementia can ravage any person leading any life. Taking an icon of literature usually so confident and at ease and reducing him to a frightened husk is a wonderful and painfully poignant idea, and Condon and his cast all do finely detailed work to bring Mitch Cullen’s A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND to life. SSP