Sherlock Holmes is arguably of the most well known and recognizable characters to grace any sort of media. Originally written in stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes has been portrayed by many actors over the years. His most recent incarnations have been played by Robert Downey, Jr. in Guy Ritchie’s two films, Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC show Sherlock, and now we have him played by Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes. While still being about the world’s most famous private detective, this film is very different from what we have seen in books, movies, and television. This is a much more personal story that may also feature some of the best performances of the year.
The year is 1947 and Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), now age 93, has long since been retired and living far away from society in a farmhouse. Living with him is his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) who understandably has a keen interest in the aged Holmes. While perfectly content keeping to himself and taking his bees in the backyard apiary, Holmes finds himself struggling with writing down the true events of his final case, which ultimately made him give up being a detective. As time goes on, Holmes finds his memory, which he had always considered his greatest asset, to quickly be fading due to what appears to be the onset of dementia. He finds help in the most unexpected of places, however, when he takes Roger on to be his protégé.
As the credits began to roll and the lights came up and everyone began shuffling out of the theater, I knew that I was going to have a lot to think about. Mr. Holmes is a much heavier movie than I was expecting it to be. Maybe I didn’t do enough research on it, but I kind of figured it would still be a movie about some sort of mystery. In a way, it still is, but it’s a mystery that’s already been solved. Instead, this film took me in a completely different direction, and the story I got was something special. Just the idea of the most observant detective there ever was struggling with memory loss and dementia is almost devastating to watch, especially since we’re dealing with such a well known character.
Sometimes I see performances and I can almost visualize the Academy awards in my head. This is the case with Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. McKellen perfectly captures the lack of human understanding that is usually seen with the character, but also adds a major dose of humanity which isn’t normally seen. Of course, this has a lot to do with the screenplay and the source material, but it’s McKellen that brings it to life onscreen. If he isn’t nominated for Best Actor this year, I’ll eat my elbow. I can also say the same thing about Laura Linney’s performance as well. It’s a lot more understated than McKellen’s, but it’s perfect for the role she’s playing.
Finally, to just top it all off, the look and the music in Mr. Holmes are both fantastic. Since the movie has three different plot points, there are quite a few locations that the story happens in. What I enjoyed watching was the contrast between Sherlock’s rural exile and the industrious, urban settings of London and Hiroshima. To match the gorgeous visuals, and also the excellent costume design, is a score by Carter Burwell, who has had extensive work in film having notably worked with the Coen Brothers on many of their films. This film is just a fine example of sight and sound, which is something that is probably experienced quite a bit, but rarely remembered.
I went into Mr. Holmes expecting to see a good movie, but I wasn’t expecting to see something that would end up being one of my favorite movies of the summer. Everything from the screenplay, to the visuals, to the design and the music all come together so perfectly to tell a deep and emotional story about one of history’s most beloved fictional characters. It may be a film that has slipped under the radar, especially with a lot of the other movies coming out this season, but Mr. Holmes is still one of my favorite films to come out this summer, and I’d also say one of my favorites so far this year.