People can’t get enough of Sherlock Holmes. From Robert Downey Jr.’s wild franchise to television’s “Elementary” and “Sherlock,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth has found rambunctious new life in the internet age.
He’s been dressed and redressed as an action hero, a tattooed addict and a mop topped Benedict Cumberbatch in the last six years alone. It seemed as if the character had been stretched to its creative limits. What more could be done with the world’s greatest detective? “Mr. Holmes” provides a beautifully pensive answer.
This Sherlock (Ian McKellen) is no longer the pipe-puffing icon of yesteryear. He’s a craggy 93-year-old man. He has difficulty caring for himself, he takes unplanned naps and he spends his days grimacing at the housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son (Milo Parker). That is, until an old spark is ignited in Holmes’ spirit, triggering a fight against his diminishing memory in order to solve a failed final case. Moriarty is long gone in this battle, replaced by a foe far more threatening: Mortality.
There’s an undeniable sadness in watching the ultimate mind struggle against his own mental deficiencies. It’s like seeing a bird attempting to fly with broken wings. But where this investigation may not provide the intellectual punch of other incarnations, “Mr. Holmes” makes up for it in sheer emotional power. Director Bill Condon makes each little discovery a cause for celebration here and never before has the antisocial Sherlock pulled so much empathy from the viewer — he’s simultaneously inspiring, brilliant and heart breaking. The director also has some fun with Holmes’ pop culture status and playfully debunks the myth from the man; even going as far as to have the elder statesman attend a cheesy ’40s flick based on Watson’s “embellished” stories. In balancing the humorous with the dramatic, the film never finds itself leaning too heavily on one mood.
As Holmes, 76-year-old Ian McKellen is a revelation. Sure he’s been Magneto and Gandalf, but you’ll be hard pressed to argue he’s ever given a better performance than this. Each grunt and glazed over stare of sadness is absolutely hypnotic, and by the time the broken detective admits that “he can’t solve everything,” it’s going to tough to hold back the emotions. Rarely has an actor’s face been such a potent source of inspiration, but here, it’s used to haunting effect. Unless the second half of the year is riddled with amazing performances, McKellen’s redefining role is going to nab him an Oscar nomination. He was that good.
With regards to the mystery, it’s not really a spoiler to reveal that Holmes solves the case. After all, he’s Sherlock Holmes — that’s what he does. The thing that makes this solution (and the whole film) stand out, however, is that he also solves something about himself. Now that is something I won’t spoil. “Mr. Holmes” is the first time we get more on the man than the mystery; but at the end of the day, isn’t that what we’ve come to see?
(Editor’s Note: Danilo Castro is a resident of Oro Valley and writer for the Film Noir Archive blog at www.filmnoirarchive.com)