Chris Rock once said in an interview that his method for joke writing is to simply take a topic and try to find the angle no one else has looked at, thus being able to find new comedy in old subjects. Currently there is a British and an American Sherlock Holmes show, and we're hot off the heels of two Blockbuster film adaptations, not to mention all those in the past. Mr. Holmes takes the topic of Sherlock Holmes and finds a new angle – a thoughtful character study that ditches all the spectacle and looks at the man behind the legend near the end of his life. Bet you didn't expect the first words in this review to be “Chris Rock.”
The great Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), age 93, lives in a small English countryside home. There he tends to his bees and is assisted by his live-in housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes' memory is deteriorating. He wants to write his own accord of his life to set the record straight (as opposed to Watson's romanticized liberties) before it's too late, and in doing so revisits his unfinished last case, the film weaving between the past and present. As big a part as the mysterious case is, the main story is a drama about a stubborn old man dealing with his illness, a single mother dealing with an ailing, stubborn old man, and a boy caught between his mother and his idol.
Sherlock Holmes is one of the source precursors to modern superheroes, with moderate precognition (albeit with blinders by way of narrow focus and hubris) due to his hyper perception and encyclopedic knowledge. Both Holmes and Batman have used the title “The World's Greatest Detective” and Batman is overt about the influence. By subjecting Sherlock Holmes to memory deterioration, Mr. Holmes is sort of a “lost his powers” story. What happens when The World's Greatest Detective can't remember names and places? More importantly, who is he without that gift which defines him?
Mr. Holmes is largely about loneliness. We all know the stories and welcome characters like Watson and Mrs. Hudson because they're the humanity opposite the cold Sherlock Holmes. However even when we flash back 30 years, Holmes is mostly on his own. Watson has retired, and the scant times we “see” him director Bill Condon chooses to heavily obscure him. Mrs. Hudson is shown once, his brother Mycroft has a short scene, and both are long gone by the present setting. Mrs. Munro's husband, Roger's father, had died when Roger was barely old enough to remember, drawing parallels to both Holmes' aloneness and his failing memory.
Keeping everything set later in his life and tonally being a dignified and restrained affair, Mr. Holmes is reserved on its use of references with only one small, forgettable groaner. There was no “Hi, I'm Detective LeStrade's son! Remember LeStrade?” Mr. Holmes is most concerned with, well, Mr. Holmes. The “real” Sherlock Holmes. While Watson wrote in the famous pipe and an illustrator came up with the deerstalker hat, Sherlock prefers cigars and never wore a hat. This could have come off as ham-fisted but was handled well. Mr. Holmes has a few things to say about fact versus embellishment, coming to a head when Holmes goes to see a film version of himself.
Now I have to take a moment to derail and point out that the actor portraying Holmes in the dramatization within Mr. Holmes is none other than Nicholas Rowe – an obscure actor, but one who played Sherlock Holmes in the under-appreciated 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes. I'll admit this was one of the main reasons Mr. Holmes ended up on my radar, and it was exceedingly cool to see him again in the role, and as a faux-Basil Rathbone version.
Nicholas Rowe aside, odds are you're coming to the movie to watch Ian McKellen, who brings a warmth and vulnerability rarely seen in the character with a wheelbarrow of charisma. Were you expecting anything less? My note for this section was “Ian McKellen is not allowed to die.” The man can convey so much with a grunt, making those Gandalf-y noises only he makes. McKellen will get all the attention, but Laura Linney did some excellent work opposite Holmes, being a contrarian but never stepping over to villain status. Even young Milo Parker did a fine job. Roger came off clever but wasn't too smart, which would have drawn too obvious a comparison.
Mr. Holmes is one of the most human portrayals of the great detective. Many stories paint him as uncaring as he uses people as pawns to get to the much more important goal of the truth, coming off as alien or robotic. Couldn't be further here. My interpretation is that, because Holmes can't be three steps ahead, he actually had to concentrate in great detail on people for a change. Of course his demeanor could be explained by going back to “real vs. Watson” Sherlock. But I like my read. Because of this new dimension, there's some well-earned emotional tugs.
Sherlock Holmes has had so many versions and reinterpretations that Doyle's detective is a constant part of our entertainment world, from the obvious adaptations to new brands like Batman and House (and let us not forget Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century...couldn't resist). Mr. Holmes stands out in the crowd by slowing down and using the mythos to examine how loneliness and age affect us all, even the great Sherlock Holmes.
Mr. Holmes: B+