From Guy Ritchie’s barroom brawling version to CBS’ Elementary and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock, the modern takes on the character, there have been many recent attempts to reimagine the character of Sherlock Holmes. Some of these reboots have been good, some have been bad, but they’ve never quite felt authentic.
What’s so refreshing about Mr. Holmes is that it has a slant on the character that feels fresh and unique, but one that still feels very true to the spirit of the character. Set in the 1940s, the film focuses on an aged Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) who is living out his final days in a cottage, desperately trying to “solve” his final case.
McKellen plays a stripped down version of the character. In the film’s reality, the Sherlock Holmes we are all familiar with – the one with the deerstalker hat and the pipe who says things like “Elementary my dear Watson” – is a fiction created by John Watson to sell books. Holmes really is a detective who solved cases, but Holmes, his partner, embellished and altered the stories to make them more interesting to the public.
So, after reading one of Watson’s tales for the first time and seeing the film based on his final case, Holmes becomes obsessed with remembering what really happened so he can write an authentic account of the final mystery he solved. But, now in his 90s, Holmes’ mind is slipping away from him and he finds himself unable to recall what actually happened.
It’s a clever twist on the familiar dynamic. And the framing story of the 90-year-old Holmes attempting to remember events from 30 years earlier allows us to see the stark difference between Holmes at the top of his game and an elderly version of the character who, while still brilliant, is now fighting the ravages of time. This accomplishes several really cool things. For one, the case itself is long-since solved and put to rest, but Holmes essentially has to resolve it in his mind by accessing memories that are rapidly fading away. Also, showing this version of Holmes, now at the end of his life and without Watson or Mycroft or Mrs. Hudson (who have all now passed away), we see the toll being an eccentric genius has taken on him. He’s essentially all alone and the one thing he always took comfort in – his own exceptional logic and brilliance – is now being taken from him.
The only people he now has in his life are his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). Roger is also exceptionally intelligent, but his talents are being squandered. He forms an instant attachment to Sherlock Holmes, who decides to mentor the child. It’s Roger’s presence that rejuvenates him and helps him remember the past. But Mrs. Munro is weary of their friendship, since she sees the writing on the wall and worries that her son is getting overly-attached to a man who is at the end of his life. Having already lost his father, Mrs. Munro doesn’t want Roger to have to go through the pain of losing Mr. Holmes too.
There is also a rather intriguing side story about Sherlock’s journey to Japan to find a special plant that he’s hoping will jog his memory. In Japan, his guide Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) has his own secret agenda for inviting Sherlock out. Mr. Holmes must also get to the bottom of Umezaki’s motivations and find a satisfactory resolution.
The way all three of these stories – the two in the present and the one that took place 30 years prior – all end up weaving together is quite beautiful. The mysteries themselves aren’t earth-shattering, but the emotional weight behind them and Sherlock’s reactions to them are what makes the film.
Ian McKellon gives a truly captivating performance as Sherlock Holmes. There is a stark contrast between the younger, spry version of Sherlock he plays and the 90-year-old, infirmed version that makes the latter all the more heartbreaking. Milo Parker is charming and wonderful as Roger, a part integral to the plot that requires a very talented young actor to pull it off. Laura Linney is also quite good as Mrs. Munro, though it’s a bit of a thankless role since Sherlock and Roger are the clear stars and she exists more as a barrier to their friendship. Hattie Morahan gives a haunting performance as Ann Kelmot, the woman at the center of the mystery that unfolded 30 years prior.
If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, particularly one who hasn’t been completely satisfied by recent reimaginings of the character, I highly recommend this film. It feels true to the spirit of the character while still offering something unique. It’s a version of Sherlock Holmes you never knew you wanted, but one that will stay with you for a long time.
Written by Joel Murphy. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org