‘Mr. Holmes’ MOVIE REVIEW: Ian McKellen is, of Course, Fantastic as an Elderly Sherlock


Review written by Matthew Lowe.

There is a reason why our fictional heroes never grow old and infirm. Do you really want to see a rancorous Bruce Wayne tripping around and flinging faeces at the walls of the Batcave? Or a senile Superman turning up to work at the Daily Planet with his underpants on his head?

Our fondness is borne from a vicarious sense of immortality. Perhaps what we don’t want is the acrimony of age and death?

Mr. Holmes is never so undignified, but it presents the same proposition, essentially what is a litmus designed to humiliate and demystify the literary icon: Sherlock Holmes, aged ninety-three, barely cogent and suffering from the onsets of dementia. It is a premise which – in spite of its good humour – never escapes its own inherent morbidity.

Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” Bill Condon’s film presents a pseudo post-modernist reading of Conan Doyle’s archetype, a world where the detective himself (Ian McKellan) is a tangible entity whose life has been exaggerated into pulp fiction by one John Watson. Ensconced at a rural estate with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker), Holmes attempts to piece together from his failing memory the case that prompted his retirement three decades earlier. In between, he spends his time beekeeping, role-modelling to Roger, and looking for quick-fix health cures.

Ian McKellan is ideally cast. His pockmarked face is like a mountain carved in time, and he carries the years and existential weight of the character with great poise and gentle humour. Laura Linney and the rest of the cast are fine, though their characters are rudimentary by comparison – generic, if one was being harsh.

Much of the film centres on the relationship between Holmes and Roger, essentially a rumination about the fallibility of heroes, applicable as much to the child as to the audience and the cultural baggage with which we approach a Sherlock Holmes picture.

Although these exchanges are both touching and charming, they become mildly turgid over the course of the film, being as they are at the expense of the mystery – mild, here, at best – which would have been more appropriate for a Holmes story, however aged the character.

What we get (in flashbacks) is a fleeting pursuit of a man’s wife, with an emotionally fatalistic conclusion; and a deviation to Japan, which feels somewhat superfluous. The problem is that, regardless of the emotionally dense manner in which those cases play out, Holmes glimpsed in detective mode is more compelling, more exhilarating than watching him suffer, which is fatiguing. Especially as McKellan is so good in the role, it seems a missed opportunity that the flashbacks were not more prominent or involved compared to the level of, for instance, beekeeping and bed-riddance.

This is a deconstructionist Sherlock Holmes, and though one understands a straight-out detective mystery was never the point – so much as it is a cogitation on mortality via Sherlock Holmes – some sort of balance struck between the two extremes would have been more ideal, since as it is, Mr. Holmes is unduly weighted towards ageing sobriety.

What Mr. Holmes requires, however difficult, is for one to dismiss their expectations for a Sherlock Holmes film at the door and approach it independently. That done, there is much to admire here. As a portrait of the aged, it is moving, and as an elegy for a fictive character, it is alluringly self-possessed, certainly a preferable alternative to say, Robert Downey Jnr’s tacky incarnation via Guy Richie, to which this is an antidote.

But as a viewer, your question should be, do I want to watch an elegy in the first place?  If yes, proceed agreeably to this sombre decomposition and enjoy. If not, you should probably pass.