Title: Mr Holmes
Director: Bill Condon
Major Players: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney,
Out Of Five: 3.5
Everybody has their own image of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, either from the TV or the big screen. Mine is Jeremy Brett’s ashen faced, flamboyant version from the 80s: he had a real dark side. It seems I’m not the only one, because it turns out that Ian McKellen, who plays The Great Detective in Mr Holmes, is a Brett fan as well.
But what happens when Holmes gets older? The man with the brilliant mind who was always at least one step ahead of the police and who turned deduction an art form. What happens when those powers start to diminish and his memory starts to fade? And how does he come to terms with it, after such an illustrious and intellectually stimulating life?
It’s the dilemma at the heart of the film. It’s 1947, Holmes is 93 years old,Watson and Mycroft are both dead. He’s living in a chocolate box seaside cottage with only his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker) for company. His memory is becoming unreliable – he has to write people’s names on his shirt cuff so it appears that he remembers them – and he’s becoming increasingly frail. But his relationship with Roger keeps him going: the boy is bright, fascinated by books and the beehives in the orchard that Holmes looks after. But Holmes is also preoccupied with correcting the misconceptions about his life because he knows his days are getting short.
While McKellen hasn’t admitted to basing his Holmes on Brett’s, it’s easy enough to see the 80s incarnation aging into the one of Mr Holmes. There’s all the fastidiousness: it’s fading as he ages, but it still makes him a demanding and frustrating charge for his housekeeper. He is, though, still capable of going for a swim in the sea and we never see him wearing glasses when reading or writing. At most, it’s a magnifying glass for reading. But his mental faculties are most definitely not what they were and coming to terms with it isn’t easy. The difference is made all the more apparent when the story reverts to Holmes in the final days of his career, sharp of suit and sharp of mind.
You have to feel for his current housekeeper. Her predecessor, Mrs Hudson, at least had the excitement of visiting clients and Holmes and Watson keeping strange hours while they were out on cases. Mrs Munro doesn’t have that. She’s lost her husband in the war, she feels unappreciated both by Holmes and her young son so, when the chance of a new life comes along, she jumps at it. Laura Linney is one of my favourite actresses, but I’m not wholly convinced she’s right for the part. Her accent is very strange and it’s hard to get a handle on her character. In fact, it only falls into place properly late on in the film, when young Roger’s life is in danger.
But this is Holmes’ story and it’s a beautiful performance from McKellen. His depiction of the elderly and ailing Holmes is superb: compassionate but never mushy, realistic but still holding on to dignity and what faculties he has left with every fibre of his being. It’s the performance that makes and carries the film, despite a supporting cast that also boasts Roger Allam, Phil Davis (as a contemporary police inspector, reminiscent of the ones Holmes met in his heyday) and John Sessions as Mycroft. Watson is there too but faceless, only visible from the chest down. Holmes reveals the two became estranged so it’s clearly too painful for him to remember his old friend’s face.
1947 England is idyllic, the only signs of war being Mrs Munro’s story of how her husband died and the debris from military planes in nearby fields. And rationing seems to have ended early, as she serves up hearty beef stews with copious quantities of vegetables. The scenery and the domestic setting is, however, a cinematographer’s dream and Tobias A Schliessler grabs the opportunity with both hands.
A leisurely film, Mr Holmes gives us a portrait of what’s to come for all of us, regardless of intellect, and makes its point gently and with dignity. Not that it needs to be laboured, because we can all see it in front our eyes.
Mr Holmes is released around the UK on Friday, 19 June and reviewed on the Talking Pictures podcast.