In 1922, John Barrymore brought master British sleuth Sherlock Holmes to the screen and over the ensuing 93 years since then, that debut has almost singlehandedly ushered in the industry of popular detective fiction in both print and film. Now director Bill Condon (Gods & Monsters, Kinsey, Dreamgirls, The 5th Estate and The Twilight Sagas 1&2) offers a new take on Conan Doyle’s famous character by reimaging him as an elderly gentleman slowly losing a personal battle against senility.
As envisioned by Condon in his adaptation of Mitch Cullen’s novel and personified by the magisterial Ian McKellen, Mr.Holmes carries water on both shoulders, presenting a genuinely baffling mystery while also subtly probing the question of whether (and when) it’s appropriate to lie. Ably assisted by the handsome set designs of Charlotte Watts (Mr. Turner) and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler’s lush images of the Sussex countryside, Mr. Holmes stands as a quietly defiant counterpoint to the usual run of summer’s high-octane, testosterone-laden Hollywood movies. By turns sly and gently disturbing, Condon and McKellen give audiences a contemporary version of the inscrutable detective by asking what would happen if he had an old case to revisit while being hampered by an inability to remember the facts upon which it was based?
The year is 1947 and Holmes has retired to an aging farmhouse in the Sussex countryside where he lives among the cluttered mementos of his former work with a short-tempered housekeeper (Laura Linney) and Roger, her precocious young son. Estranged from the now long deceased Dr. Watson, Holmes divides his time between raising bees and struggling to write, in Watson’s stead, an account of the unsolved case that proved to be their last.
It concerned a young man who, struggling to explain the mysterious mental deterioration of his young wife, seeks Holmes’ assistance in explaining it. Although he cannot now piece together the circumstances surrounding his failed efforts on the husband’s behalf because of his patchy memory, Holmes finds himself obsessed with the need to write about it while also grappling with the persistence of a Japanese gentleman who insists that his father, missing since the end of the war, was an old and trusted friend of the detective. Just how, (if at all) do these two challenges relate to one another and the cerebral recluse haunted by things he can no longer understand?
McKellen’s Holmes is an amalgam of the idiosyncrasies facing those in their 8th decade; peevishly insistent on a level of independence of which he’s no longer capable, curt with his housekeeper but kind to her son and most importantly, obsessed with exploring whatever real or imagined remedies might exist for his seriously wounded memory. As he patches together the events of his past, Holmes is forced to examine his ruthless commitment to objective facts at the expense of a sense of compassion for his clients. As Mr. Holmes reaches its climax, audiences are given an unexpected treat; the discovery that a character’s real motivation occurs to him at the same time it does those of us in the theater seats.
McKellen celebrated his 76th birthday recently and the skills that have made him a dominating presence in legitimate theater for over half a century have also been shrewdly employed by the actor in such blockbuster films as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the X-Men series, making his one of the most recognizable faces among contemporary moviegoers of all ages. Here he employs basset-hound facial features to register all the impatience, anxiety and vulnerability of those in the final season of their lives who have no choice but to confront present day diminution comingled with painful memories of the past. Employing his movements to evoke the brittleness of an aging body and a mellifluous voice tinged with patrician gentility, McKellen provides an unusually robust depth to a fictional character most of us feel that we already know.
The Verdict? A small gem, whose message lingers well after the lights go up – and surely one of the best movies of the year for those who long for films that, along with entertaining us, actually have something to say.
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