By Katherine Powell
In Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes, the famous fictitious detective. Holmes has retired to the countryside, to tend to bees and try to remember his last case, which led him to retire from his detective work. Holmes knows that the popular novel written by Watson has incorrectly made him the hero, but he has lost the threads of his memory. He lives in his home with a housekeeper, the widowed Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger. Holmes is his typical gruff self, untangling the facts and investigating his own memory, while he grapples with his failing mind and feelings of loneliness.
One theme of the film is how much people need other people. Holmes spends his time trying to reconstruct the facts of his final investigation. He discovers that his fundamental mistake was not offering comfort to the woman, just cold facts. He realizes that logic is not the only thing that matters, and he becomes close to his housekeeper and her son, establishing a very sweet connection with the two.
Technically, the movie was well done. The cinematography was careful, not overwrought or melodramatic. The scenes are set in the country, with flashbacks to Holmes’ working years, which take place in an urban setting. The scenes in London are filmed in the customary blacks and grays of the city, with vibrant colors to emphasize characters or plot points. In the country, the contrast of the colors is gorgeous, with stunning landscapes of the calm blues and greens of the English countryside. This quiet use of color is juxtaposed with Holmes’ deteriorating mind. He struggles with memory loss, and the complexity of a brilliant mind fading keeps the audience rapt without obviously dramatic shots.
Critics may argue that there is a problem with pacing. The flashbacks go between one story line in Japan and one of the unresolved case involving the woman who killed herself. The conflicts of the present are his loneliness and memory loss. All resolve themselves pretty close to the end of the movie, and we see Sherlock a content man, all worries gone. To be honest, though, I didn’t mind the ‘typical’ happy ending. It was made spectacular by something else: Sir Ian McKellen’s performance.
Sir Ian McKellan has been perfecting his craft for more than five decades. He is known in modern popular culture for his roles in the Lord of the Rings and X-Men franchises. As Holmes, he is the embodiment of the character. When he moves, his bones seem to creak. He speaks with a conviction and arrogance common to portrayals of Holmes. The best part, though, was the vulnerable, human portrayal of Holmes that we don’t often see. McKellan does this so fully, so poignantly, that I cried the entire second half of the movie.
Mr. Holmes portrays Holmes as an old man, which has never been done before. If we visited aging Sherlock Holmes, he might regret his coldness. He might admit that he needed other humans for companionship and love. We can’t honestly know, but the mastery of the filming and McKellen’s performance make this movie worth watching.