Over the past few years, there has been an influx of Sherlock Holmes related media. From the Robert Downey Jr films to Elementary to the obvious best example of them, Sherlock. Hell, even The Asylum did their own version (which is hilarious). One thing all of them have done though is look at Holmes in his prime, when he was in his 20s/30s. This is what makes Mr Holmes stand out, the focus here is on a Holmes way past his prime and losing his memory. This focus, along with a brilliant performance by Ian McKellen, makes this one of the better versions of Holmes to come out in recent years.
The plot focuses on Holmes in 1947, at 93 years old and starting to go senile 30 years after his last case. Due to events involving him reading the published diaries of Watson, he starts to write down his own story of the last case, the events of which traumatised him so much that he decided to retire and become a beekeeper. Within this, Holmes starts to form a bond with Roger, the son of his housekeeper, becoming sort of a father figure to him, and we see a trip Holmes made to Japan (more specifically Hiroshima) to find a plant that he believes will give him enough of a memory boost so that he’s able to remember the full story. This aspect of memory is one of the main reasons Mr Holmes works so well, not just the fading of memory over time but the way false memories are created, as shown through Watson’s diaries. For Holmes, his age has finally caught up with him and we see him starting to forget more and more key details, with two great bits of visuals showing this, one involving a journal and the other being Holmes needing to write key names on his sleeves because of how quickly his memory is fading. The nature of the manipulation of memory meanwhile comes through the inaccuracies in Watson’s diaries, most notably, the prescription of binary villains to the stories and the address of Holmes in the diaries being false (Holmes actually lived over the road from 221B to avoid American tourists), to him never actually wearing the deerstalker hat and being disappointed that he couldn’t smoke from a pipe as it would fit into the stereotype. This is also evident in some elements of the Japan side of the story as well, though talking about how would spoil this element. Aside from memory, empathy is also a key theme in the film. In the sections of the story set in the past, Holmes is presented in the cynical, uncaring, detached style he normally is, but in 1947, he has allowed emotion in, mainly seen in his relationship to Roger. He shows concern over Roger’s behavior, shows some care for Mrs Munroe (his housekeeper) and is angry at Roger saying things that he would have had no problem saying in the past. This emotional core of the film is best seen in relation to his final case, which clearly took an emotional tole on him and caused him to rethink his entire outlook on the world (even if the case clearly didn’t call for Holmes in the first place). These two themes of memory and empathy are often sidestepped in Sherlock Holmes films and shows and it’s very refreshing to see them here.
These themes come across best due to the acting, especially from Ian McKellen. Considering all of the other actors who have played Holmes in the past few years it takes something really special to stand out and McKellen more than delivers. He does great work playing the traditional Holmes but it’s his work in the scenes in 1947 that’s the standout. He does a great job showing the age of Holmes, with the subtle aging make-up and his whole physical demeanor making it clear that he is losing the strength he has, especially near the end of the film, which I won’t spoil here. His portrayal of Holmes’ memory loss meanwhile is excellent, with it being abundantly clear when his memory is failing him and his anger over it, since it prevents him from achieving closure on his last case. The relationship between Holmes and Roger is best shown through the great chemistry shared by McKellen and Milo Parker. It’s clear that, whilst there is a friendship, Holmes is becoming a serious negative influence on Roger, shown by Parker’s attitude in the film becoming more similar to the Holmes seen in the flashbacks, and McKellen brilliantly shows his regret over causing someone else to become like him. Good work is also done by Laura Linney as Mrs Munroe, putting on a really solid accent, and shows how out of her depth she is dealing with someone like Holmes, not only due to his attitude but his physical condition, with it being clear that she’s about to crack from the pressure. Roger Allam does good work as Holmes’ doctor, although he isn’t in the film nearly long enough, Hiroyuki Sanada does great work but talking more about him will spoil the film, the same being true for Hattie Morahan and Patrick Kennedy, who play the subjects of Holmes’ final case. There’s also a really nice casting gag with Holmes going to the cinema to watch an adaptation of one of the stories, with the Holmes in it being played by Nicholas Rowe, who previously played the character in Young Sherlock Holmes. However, there is another casting gag that does a great disservice to one of my favourite underrated actors, Phil Davis. He’s a great actor but his character is only in the film for about a minute, with it feeling a lot like Davis was only cast as he played the villain in the first episode of Sherlock.
Overall, Mr Holmes is a great film. An excellent script, a masterful performance by Ian McKellen, along with pitch-perfect production design and effective direction by Bill Condon make this one of the better Sherlock Holmes adaptations to come along in recent years. Sure there are a few problems with the plot, but the thematic weight of the film more than makes up for it.
My Rating: 4.5/5