"All emotions...were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind" [SCAN]
When we first encounter Sir Ian McKellen as an aged 93 year-old Sherlock Holmes, he is on a train returning to his home in Sussex after a journey to Japan. His demeanor is dour, but it lightens ever so slightly when he reaches his seaside farm, where he immediately retreats to his study.
If you had any expectation that Mr. Holmes would be a thinking-person's Sherlock Holmes film, centered on the detective as tireless clue hunter, you should be dissuaded of that notion immediately.
This is a film focused on the inner Sherlock Holmes - one whom we don't completely know, even after some four decades of Dr. Watson's storytelling. We quickly learn that there were many embellishments that Dr. Watson made: the deerstalker cap, the curved pipe, 221B Baker Street as the fictional address of Holmes (a nice nod to a conundrum that Sherlockians still can't entirely agree upon), and more.
But we discover that the reclusive Holmes of the South Downs holds a deeper secret: his mind, for which he is famous and which is responsible for his reputation, is failing him. He needs to find a way to stem the tide. As his mind grapples with the knowledge that it is slowly deteriorating, there is a restrained urgency to his desire to find a cure before it leaves him entirely.
Along the way, we meet Mrs. Munro (played by Laura Linney), Holmes's housekeeper, and her 10 year-old son Roger (Milo Parker), who are companions as well as helpmates to Holmes inside the house and with his apiaries. Holmes takes a special liking to Roger, as he teaches him about bee keeping and the principles of observation - perhaps seeing a bit of himself as a young boy in the clever Roger.
Holmes confides to Roger that he's trying to write the details of a particular case - in fact, the very case that caused him to retire some 33 years prior - and must do so before his mind completely fails him. This takes Holmes on a trip to Japan to seek out a cure. We're also treated to flashbacks to three decades before, as he catches glimpses of memories of the case - in which a Mr. Kelmot hired Holmes to track the meanderings of his wife.
As the film moves seamlessly between timeframes (sometimes annoyingly so), the clues are mostly visual in nature: settings in the City as well as in Japan, for example. But the most stark difference is McKellen's Holmes himself. We go from a stooped, frail and age-spotted nonagenarian deep in retirement in 1947 to a more spry, quick-spoken and visibly younger detective, at close of his career. McKellen's transformation to the elderly Holmes is a feat of the makeup department as much as the considerable acting talent.
But more than the visuals, we were taken by the exploration of the inner Sherlock Holmes - something we rarely glimpse in the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here we have a Holmes with regrets, an infatuation with a woman whom he spent less than a day with, a deep sadness and sense of loss of his stalwarts: his long-suffering landlady Mrs. Hudson, his brother Mycroft, and of course Dr. Watson. The physical struggles are there on the surface, constantly. It's the mental and emotional anguish that ebb and flow, yet McKellen's Holmes makes it clear when those things affect him.
There is a shared sense of sadness, loss and loneliness in each of Holmes, Mrs. Kelmot and Mrs. Munro. They have all lost someone of great importance to them, and a hole exists in their hearts that cannot be completely filled. While each chooses his or her own way to deal with the loss and solitude, one thing becomes eminently clear: having a purpose gives our life meaning. Mrs. Munro nursing Holmes back to health, Watson writing up Holmes's last case to show the hero, or Roger as the pupil, bringing the natural teaching and demonstration abilities of Holmes back to life. This sense of purpose fulfills a need.
Overall, the film was a decent adaptation of Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind, upon which it was based. There were certain deviations from the original which had to be made to accommodate a visual audience and to simplify the storyline, but the essence of a real and feeling Sherlock Holmes was maintained. While the jumps between time lines was potentially confusing, moviegoers should be able to pick up on it easily. But it is one that may not leave you completely satisfied, due in large part to its emotional bent. At the conclusion, we were left with a sense of melancholy for Sherlock Holmes, who, even though he discovered what he set out to, was still at heart a solitary and lonely man.
Two items of note that we thought were worth pointing out. In one of the flashback scenes, Holmes follows Mrs. Kelmot out of a garden and discovers her in the street, loitering in front of a store. Clever eyes will note that it is a taxidermist's shop, name of Ambrose Chappell. If that name sounds familiar, you might recall that was the name of the taxidermist in Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 classic The Man Who Knew Too Much.
The other is the cameo that everyone is talking about. When Holmes goes to see the fictional Sherlock Holmes film The Lady in Grey in 1947, we're treated to Nicholas Rowe playing the matinee Sherlock Holmes. Of course, Rowe had the lead role in the 1985 Chris Columbus film Young Sherlock Holmes.
We highly recommend the film to Sherlockians everywhere. Just be prepared for a subdued plot with a deep and perceptive performance by Ian McKellen, bringing you the inner Sherlock Holmes that seems more human and flawed than ever.