There have been myriad adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories over the years – so many, in fact, that some people, including this reviewer, might well be a bit fed up of them. I grew up watching the wonderful Jeremy Brett in ITV’s Sherlock Holmes TV series in the Eighties and Nineties, and to my mind no other actor has better personified the character, though I also enjoyed watching the old black and white movies starring Basil Rathbone. I’m afraid the more recent TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch just leaves me cold – too pleased with itself, too knowing. But I think Bill Condon’s film Mr Holmes, which I went to see yesterday and which is now on general release here in the UK, starring Ian McKellen as the titular sleuth, is one of the more effective takes on a well-worn tale.
Perhaps that is because – adapted as it is from a novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin, which was only published a decade ago – it seeks to present an epilogue or coda to Holmes’s illustrious career.
The film opens in 1947, with a 93-year-old Holmes returning from a trip to Japan, to his retirement home in the Sussex countryside. We gather that the now elderly, but still brusque, detective has long ago left Baker Street and his work, and that his friend and biographer John Watson is also long dead. It is also made clear early on that his extraordinary mental faculties are now deserting him, and he is slowly succumbing to dementia. It is for this reason that he has undertaken the journey to Japan, in search of the fabled root “prickly ash”, which is said to contain rejuvenating properties. But there is something else troubling him – he is struggling to remember, and record, his final case of thirty years earlier, whose tragic outcome led him to retire in the first place.
McKellen is an actor in whose company I am always glad to spend a few hours, and he doesn’t disappoint here: though some very good make-up is used to distinguish between the nonagenarian Holmes and the more sprightly figure of thirty years before – whom we see in flashback – the actor hardly needs it, conveying through his physicality and that extraordinary face how he has become worn down by frailty and guilt. Laura Linney and Milo Parker are equally first rate as his widowed housekeeper, Mrs Munro, and her confident, curious son, Roger, with whom Holmes forms a cantankerous but genuinely touching bond.
Condon and his screenwriter, Jeffrey Hatcher, pace the story nicely, and the three main plotlines – the last case, the Japanese trip (which is not all it seems), and the imminent departure of Mrs Munro and Roger to a new life in Portsmouth – unfold carefully. However, though I enjoyed this movie, and was moved by it, I felt it was ultimately somehow less than the sum of its parts, and that by far the most powerful strand of its plot was that set in Sussex, where Holmes tends his bees and faces up to his own mortality. I also wasn’t quite convinced that it would take a man, even one as emotionally detached as Sherlock Holmes, until his nineties to really discover what love meant.
That said, the scene where he visits Hiroshima, and witnesses a man praying amidst the ruins to his lost family (which finds an echo at the end of the film), really made me catch my breath, and indeed the whole film is beautifully photographed by Tobias A. Schliessler, and I found myself distinctly covetous of Holmes’s beautiful Sussex retreat. I also liked the way that the haunting music of the glass armonica – an instrument once thought to drive people mad – recurred in the story of Holmes’s last case. But in the end this is McKellen’s film, and it was surely his star power which made actors like Frances de la Tour and Phil Davis agree to appear in brief – but important – cameos.
Overall, Mr Holmes is quality film-making, and very English, despite being adapted from the work of an American novelist by an American director and screenwriter. If for no other reason, go and see it to enjoy the performances, especially Ian McKellen’s – he’s 76 now, and like Sherlock Holmes himself, a bit of a British institution.