Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced us to the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, in 1887. The character quickly became part of our pop culture, aided in large part by a host of onscreen faces and styles. The great John Barrymore played him as a very young man in the 1922 silent picture simply titled “Sherlock Holmes.” Basil Rathbone became best recognized for his straight forward classical interpretation in a popular series of films from the 1930’s and ’40’s. Robert Downey Jr. turned him into a muscled action hero in 2009 and he’s currently seeing modern reimaginings on both American television and an acclaimed BBC series. Now, Ian McKellen puts yet another fresh face on the iconic classic sleuth.
Adapted from the 2005 novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” “Mr. Holmes” sees the venerable and literally old detective in 1947 at the age of 93. It’s been 30 years since his last case, a tragic failure that has secluded him to keeping bees on a country estate. Unsatisfied with Watson’s retelling of the events, he attempts to set the record straight by writing his own version. However, he must overcome his greatest adversary yet, the creeping ravages of senility, in order to remember the truth that haunts him.
The caretaking comforts of Mrs. Hudson are here replaced by a begrudging housekeeper named Mrs. Munro. She’s played with dour bemusement and longing by the interesting casting choice of Laura Linney. Her amateur detective young son Roger (an intelligent and lively Milo Parker) becomes Holmes’ unlikely companion and confidant. He also inadvertently makes himself the center of still another mystery the fading quick wits of Holmes must solve.
This is a quiet and personal look at the man behind the life of great public adventure. There is a satisfying and surprising mystery here that also introduces us to a most unusual musical instrument called a glass harmonica. Yet the main focus is on making peace with the past and struggling to cope with the challenges of the aged present.
Both McKellen and his makeup are remarkable. They compliment each other so convincingly it is only in the first flashback that you realize the masterfulness of both. Whether feeble and desperate or vigorous and keen, McKellen’s Holmes is a superior curmudgeon, compassionate father figure, puzzle solving genius and always brilliant gentleman. It’s a very lifelike portrayal of a revered larger-than-life character.