In the history of fiction, few characters have proved to be as enduring or as malleable as Sherlock Holmes. When Conan Doyle retired his “consulting detective” in 1904, Holmes continued his adventures of the big screen with barely a pause for a pipe. The first movie appeared in 1916 and – thanks in no small part to Sherlock and Guy Richie’s innovative reboot – the great detective has sailed into the millennium riding high in the ratings.
However, as any Game Of Thrones fan will tell you, film is a reductive medium. No matter how lush or engaging, when turning a book into movie, you inevitably lose something. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, we’ve all become so accustomed to the filmic Holmes that the ‘real’ Sherlock is in danger of vanishing entirely.
In the books, we see Holmes as a vigorous, eccentric, bohemian, with a healthy disregard for pomp and social conventions. A man prone to bursts of humour, frenetic activity, and self-appropriation. He’s also a man with “a great heart as well as a great brain” (The Three Garridebs). After all, you can’t be a detective without an understanding of human nature.
Mr Holmes is the latest take on the great detective, reuniting Ian McKellen with Gods And Monsters director Bill Condon. The tale is based on Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick Of The Mind, which tells the story of the ageing sleuth effectively on the scent of his younger self. The scenes bounce between Sussex in 1947 and Baker Street in 1919, as Holmes grapples with his failing memory to recall exactly what triggered his retirement so many years ago.
The idea of presenting Doyle’s detective as a frail and fallible shadow of once great man could have worked well but sadly Mr Holmes, ambles along not really sure where it’s going. There’s not one but two back stories, whose only purpose seems to be to show the detective as a bit of a curmudgeon with no feel for human frailties. In fact, if we accept this new reimagining, then Holmes is much more John Watson’s creation than his own man.
The sets and set dressings look lovely in a standard BBC period piece sort of way. It’s all very handsome, lush and watchable, if a little underwhelming.
What saves Mr Holmes from mediocrity is the superlative cast. It seems remarkable that Ian McKellen should have reached his 70s without portraying Holmes before. But having finally got his teeth into the part, he clearly relishes every moment, injecting every ounce of his considerable screen craft into the role. Laura Linney (Love Actually, The Truman Show) makes an excellent job of thin pickings as Holmes’ housekeeper. While Milo Parker offers up a Disney-child-star level of intensity to his role as her son and want to-be detective.
Mr Holmes isn’t a bad film – and that’s where it fails. It could, should, have been so much more. The idea of stripping an icon of detective fiction down to the bare bones is intriguing. What would Holmes be without Baker Street, without Watson, without his intellect, reasoning, and passions? What would the great man be once the ravages of age and encroaching dementia took their toll? The answer appears to be: nothing much. No titanic struggles. No flashes of dying glory. Despite McKellen’s sensitive and nuanced performance, we’ve now lost so much of Sherlock’s essential Holmesian nature that all that’s left is Mr Holmes. A quirky old guy who looks after bees and can’t remember where he put his slippers.