It’s 1947 in sunny Sussex and a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) has one last case to solve. This time, though, he’s not searching crime scenes or back alleys for clues, but rather his own memories. Time has taken its toll on his mind, and while his powers of observation are as sharp as ever his powers of recollection have waned and the Holmes we meet in this film is struggling to remember his earlier life and in particular his last case – one that he is certain he failed to solve. And so he searches his memories, and himself, in the hopes of gaining some closure before it’s too late.
The plot opens with the aging Holmes living in the Irish countryside with his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her bright and engaging son Roger (an incredible Miles Parker), spending his days writing and tending bees. Everyone who ever knew the ‘real’ Holmes has died, but his legend lives on through the books of Doctor Watson and, more recently, through motion pictures. After Roger breaks into Holmes’ room and reads the notes on his final case, Holmes discovers that Watson’s account of the case is a downright lie, and that the motion picture based on it skews the truth even further. Determined to recall the ‘true’ version of what happened (and egged on by wannabe detective Roger) he begins to search his mind for clues to this one final mystery.
In order to explore this fully the plot moves between the events of the ‘modern-day’ setting to scenes of the case itself, flashing back to 1915 London and the mystery of a woman seemingly driven mad by the loss of her unborn children. As bits and pieces of the case come back to Holmes, we are also taken back to his more recent trip to Japan to source a mysterious plant that a fan of Doctor Watson’s stories claims will cure Holmes’ ailing mind. In this narrative we are shown a country still mourning the events of World War II, with the plant that Holmes is seeking now growing in the ruins of Hiroshima. These jumps between narratives are sudden and sometimes startling, as we are shown them as they leap back into Holmes’ memory, but clever use of setting and an incredible makeup department (Holmes’ aging is portrayed beautifully) help us to follow the skips between the timelines.
The theme of loss and tragedy also ties all three of the narratives together, and director Bill Condon does a fantastic job of showing the many and varied ways that people cope (or don’t cope) with the tragedies in their own lives. It also marks only the second time in Sherlock’s life where he is beaten by a woman, albeit in a far different fashion to his canonical encounter with Irene Adler.
The film also explores the role that memories have in shaping us – the older, forgetful Holmes is cranky and lacks patience with himself and others, but as he begins to recall a time when lack of kindness and empathy came at a price he begins to evolve into a kinder, more sensitive man. Human nature, to Holmes, has always been more of a mystery than straightforward and observable ‘facts’; the inner workings of people are always so much harder to discern than their outer ones. The exploration of the impact of Holmes’ failing memory serves as a sadly fitting torment for a man who has relied his whole life on the power of his brain, while also functioning as a way for the film to explore his backstory, taking us through the story as it returns to him piece by piece.
Ian McKellen absolutely shines in his portrayal of Holmes, and Milo Parker in his role as Roger provides a beautiful ray of sunshine to counter Holmes’ cranky, dismal attitude. Most of the other characters, though, are not given much time to breathe, especially with the jumps between each of their stories. Laura Linney in particular is reduced to the role of worried mother, spending most of her time walking in and out of rooms wearing a concerned expression, pausing only to fuss over Holmes or her son or to cook them lunch. Linney does a fantastic job with what she’s given, though, and brings a much-needed weight to the character that the film could not do without.
Quiet, strong, and character-driven, Mr Holmes is a heartfelt and moving contribution to the Sherlock Holmes canon, and Ian McKellen has provided us with one of the best versions of the great detective to emerge in a very long time. The film has eschewed the almost superpowered versions of Holmes and opted instead to show us a real human being who we care deeply for and about, and the film is all the richer for it.
Stephen Moffatt could do well to take note.
Mr Holmes opens Thursday, July 23 at Cinema Nova. For more details see cinemanova.com.au