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By Daniel Lammin
19th July 2015

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic creation Sherlock Holmes has had an enormous resurgence over the past decade. Between the two Guy Richie films and the TV series ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Elementary’. he’s returned to the public consciousness and been embraced enthusiastically, albeit now with a more modern sensibility. Sherlock Holmes is probably seen less by the public as a great figure of literature than as a kind of quasi superhero. ‘Mr Holmes’, an adaptation of the book by Mitch Cullin and directed by Bill Condon, has thrown its (deer-stalker) hat in the ring, but rather than falling in line with the current trend, it explores both a revisionist Holmes and one more vividly evoked from the pages of Conan Doyle’s stories.

Set in 1947, we find Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) very much in retirement and in his 90s, living in Sussex with his widowed housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes and Roger strike up a close friendship, particularly over Holmes’ hobby of beekeeping. Knowing he is approaching the end of his life, Holmes is trying to remember his final case - the one that caused him to commit to immediate early retirement - but his remarkable investigative brain, the one that made him famous, has started to break down.

Rather than being a kind of ghastly "the true story behind that imaginary character you love so much", ’Mr Holmes’ is a far more playful and meditative extension of the original Holmes universe, taking the beloved character as we have traditionally known him. Holmes is the last man standing, with Watson, Mrs Pierce and Inspector LeStrade long passed away, and is perpetually haunted by the ghosts of his past. As Holmes (with Roger’s help) tries to recall his final case, the film moves smoothly between aged, failing Holmes and the detective at the height of his career, stepping through the clues bit by bit. This is where the film holds its power, and where Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher deliver their emotional blows - by showing us Holmes over two different periods, we are hit by his mortality, and by the cumulative effect of his ‘adventures’. He is a man taking stock, assessing his actions and his mistakes. Other recent variations on the Holmes stories have made much of his antisocial behaviour, but what ‘Mr Holmes’ does beautifully is turn it from an endearing curiosity to a genuine affliction, and one that the character must ultimately accept. The premise of Sherlock Holmes as an old man is a magical one, and the film certainly brims with wit, humour and delicious entertainment, but what really surprises is its emotional weight. It takes a cool premise and attempts to say something with it, not just about Holmes but about mortality and old age, both in its poetry and in its catastrophe.


Condon and his team have done a beautiful job. There’s a gorgeous pastoral melancholy to the film, one that embraces death rather than works against it, the sleepy tone followed closely under the surface by something more threatening. This is Condon’s best film in a very long time, probably since his Oscar-winning ‘Gods and Monsters’ (1998). His direction is considered and self-assured, moving the film with a determined rhythm without robbing the story or the performances their chance to breathe. While some of Hatcher’s screenplay is occasionally clunky and obvious, it also manages to find moments of great honesty, offering rich material for the actors to embrace. ‘Mr Holmes’ isn’t an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, but it’s one that knows what it wants to be and the experience it wants to give its audience, and it does so with tremendous skill and care.

The undeniable centrepiece of the film is Ian McKellen. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen this great actor work with this kind of material, and it reminds us just how powerful he is. Without missing a beat, McKellen moves between the two versions of Holmes with magical ease, physically embodying both an able-bodied man of poise and grace, and a man whose body and mind is failing him at a rapid pace. McKellen is a fearless actor, and totally embraces the darker elements of Holmes, bringing them together in a devastating conclusion that reveals a man we know so well as made of iron as (more potently) just a man. These are the kinds of roles we should be seeing him play more often. Also an absolute delight is Milo Parker as Roger, a little firecracker with so much wonderful chemistry with McKellen. Roger is opinionated and wantonly independent, and even at his young age, Parker nails all these qualities on the head. Watching McKellen and Parker on screen together is watching two great actors, separated in age by decades, working as equals, and it’s magical to watch. Unfortunately, Laura Linney doesn’t hit the same strides as Mrs Munro. Though very good, she often seems overwhelmed by both her accent and her emotions, making her performance feel scattered and hard to read. It’s a surprise, as her casting seemed to be another hit for the film.

The undeniable centrepiece of the film is Ian McKellen. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen this great actor work with this kind of material, and it reminds us just how powerful he is.

‘Mr Holmes’ might be yet another revisionist take on the iconic detective, but it’s one that feels far closer to the soul of the character than any before it. Rather than making him a super-intelligent yet socially awkward curiosity, it crafts a portrait of Holmes as a human being, one at the mercy of time and mortality. It’s a beautiful film, with a remarkable central performance by Ian McKellen, that offers the comfort of those patronal British period dramas without giving up its power to affect or move. As a long-time lover of Sherlock Holmes, it was such a relief to see this remarkable creation treated with such care and respect.

RELEASE DATE: 23/07/2015
RUN TIME: 1h 44m
CAST: Ian McKellen
Laura Linney
Milo Parker
Hiroyuki Sanada
DIRECTOR: Bill Condon
WRITER: Jeffrey Hatcher
PRODUCERS: Iain Canning
Anne Carey
Emile Sherman
SCORE: Carter Burwell
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