Pop culture has succumbed of late to what we might deem cumberbacchanalia: a revelling in sexy new versions of our foremost literary heroes. To the sainted Benedict’s savant Sherlock, Bill Condon’s period piece Mr. Holmes might serve as a mild form of rebuke. Here is the old, stately Holmes – less hip, more hip-replacement – positioned front and centre by an industry doing everything possible to satiate its rediscovered audience of matinee-going greyhairs; he’s played by Ian McKellen with the same twinkly-eyed, fruity-voiced wisdom he bestowed upon Gandalf the Great.
We join this Holmes in the year 1947, in seclusion on the South Coast – then, as now, retirement territory – where he keeps bees (studied as he once did human behaviour) and shrugs away the last vestiges of the image created for him in bestsellers written by one John Watson (glimpsed in passing). The idea, sourced from Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind”, is a clever one, immediately connecting protagonist with target audience – that, just as today’s whippersnappers might hold certain ill-informed ideas about pensioners, so too everyone on screen has misconceptions about the detective.
Firstly, that he lived at 221B Baker Street (when, in actuality, this Holmes moved across the street to avoid – or better study – the tourists); then, that he wears a deerstalker and smokes a pipe (where this one prefers a cigar). The connection’s strengthened when this Holmes potters off to a matinee showing of a film adaptation of one of Watson’s books, and sees his big-screen self – played, in an affectionate nod, by former Young Sherlock Holmes Nicholas Rowe – assemble the pieces of a plot our hero dismisses as “utter rubbish”.
Mr. Holmes’s own plot tends towards the meandering, shaped more than anything else by its subject’s wandering memory. Around this character study, we’re offered recollections of a recent trip to Japan to retrieve a royal jelly-like substance; these are interspersed with flashbacks to Holmes’s final case, a cherchez la femme affair initiated by a husband convinced his wife may have strayed.
That this case should turn on a tombstone serves notice of the themes of infirmity and mortality Condon and McKellen are turning over here (as, indeed, they were in 1998’s Gods and Monsters). Holmes’s relocation to the White Cliffs – his homeland’s natural endpoint – may well resonate with Silver Screen audiences who’ve felt marginalised in recent decades, as might the narrative insinuation that Sherlock is a man out of time in an era where such barbarities as Hiroshima (the crime that obliterates all clues, all traces) are permissible.
Much effort has been made to situate this Holmes in your nanna’s world, which proves a mixed blessing: staking out such cosy, literal heritage cinema territory leaves no room for those wistful flights of fancy taken by Billy Wilder’s similarly autumnal The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Yet the performers do just enough to keep everybody awake: McKellen is very touching as a Holmes who’s survived long enough to see clues and causality everywhere he goes, but increasingly lacks the faculties to interpret them as he once did.
He forms close, believable ties with Laura Linney as his flinty housekeeper – a sort-of real-world Mrs. Hudson, facing up to mounting financial pressure by rolling up her sleeves and working harder – and with young Milo Parker as her son and Sherlock’s eager protégé. There are nice bits, too, for Frances de la Tour (briefly initiating a Vicious revival as a flappy medium), Phil Davis (as a workaday copper) and John Sessions (as Mycroft). It does feel very much the work of old pros: steady, a little plodding, worth humouring.
(MovieMail, June 2015)
Mr. Holmes premieres on BBC2 tonight at 6.20pm.