It’s after World War II on the British countryside. We’re introduced to a feeble old man in a garden. At first glance, it’s impossible to tell that he used to be a great detective – perhaps the world’s most famous detective.
But then he starts narrating people’s lives after taking one look at them. And the flashbacks come to show us his travels and snippets of cases. Yes, it is indeed Sherlock Holmes – played masterfully by the very versatile, iconic Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes (2015). It delightfully incorporates into the plot the detective’s literary fame, and with Watson’s departure, brings in a new sidekick of sorts for the title character: the boy Roger, played by Milo Parker. This young actor is a born star, and I hope we will get to see much more of him in the years to come.
The son of Holmes’s caretaker in the countryhouse (in an understated performance by Laura Linney), Roger is a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and gradually wins over the grumpy old man. He finds some of Holmes’s writings and notices they’re incomplete. By showing great interest and asking Holmes to keep on telling the story, the boy jolts his memory and might just jolt him out of his retirement rut. Roger is extremely smart and perceptive, and may be an innate detective himself. His mother, a simple woman, worries about Roger spreading his wings and about his growing attachment to Holmes. She wants to take him away, but the boy does not want to be separated from his idol.
It shocked me to see McKellen looking so aged on screen, perhaps because I tend to associate him more with his Magneto than with his Gandalf. Also, before now, I couldn’t imagine the legendary detective old – at 93 in the film! – easily stumbling and falling, his memory failing him. And this is what makes Mr. Holmes special, in my opinion, as the movie poster itself suggests: In the high vulnerability of body and mind of his last days, totally believable with McKellen’s acting, I’ll dare say Sherlock Holmes has never appeared so human. Even more human than the deeply flawed version played by Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 take and again in 2011, still youngish and quite sharp amid bouts of depression.
Besides the new plot revolving around the older detective, Mr. Holmes, based on a 2005 novel, differs from other cinema and TV versions in that it’s slow-developing, with little action. It’s slow-developing as Mr. Holmes’s own memory, and becomes more exciting as life also becomes more exciting, and the picture more complete, for him. There is some unresolved trauma, and some more trauma to come. The image of a beautiful and troubled woman haunts him, and for a while he doesn’t know why. But with the boy’s help, she slowly comes back into sharper focus, as does a subplot partially unfolding in Hiroshima.
And now, to wrap up, a fun fact: The director of Mr. Holmes, Bill Condon, is quite eclectic. He also directed the 1995 horror flick Candyman and, over the 2000s, his films include the biopic Kinsey, the musical Dreamgirls, the Twilight series and the upcoming live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.
You can watch Mr. Holmes – in English with German subtitles – in Leipzig most evenings this movie week: Friday-Sunday, and Tuesday and Wednesday. Showtimes are 19:00h at Plagwitz’s Schaubühne Lindenfels.