There has never been a shortage of representations of Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most famous detective in the history of literature. From the classic Basil Rathbone films, to the glut of representations in the modern age, ranging from the excellent Sherlock, to the gloriously entertaining Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr, to the mediocre Elementary, the character has never left our consciousness. He has also inspired similar brilliant detectives, and the idea of an all-knowing, radically intelligent investigator has been a part of entertainment history for many years now. However, there seems to be a fatigue of sorts, and while I do adore any representation of Holmes on screen, I do think it is growing slightly redundant now. Just as I was losing hope, a wonderful film comes along – Mr. Holmes. Not only is it one of the best films featuring Holmes, it is one of the best films of the year.
In 1998, Bill Condon, a filmmaker and screenwriter who by that point had only directed some very trash B-movies and television films, teamed up with Ian McKellen, one of the most respected and adored stars of stage and screen, and the very definition of a great actor. Together they made Gods and Monsters, a film about the iconic horror film director James Whale. That film was a turning point in the careers of both men – McKellen became an acting icon, and Condon, winning an Academy Award for writing Gods and Monsters, went on to do some fantastic films in his own right, such as Dreamgirls and Kinsey (I do have to mention that Condon did indeed do the final two Twilight films, but I think we should all forgive him for that). McKellen and Condon didn’t work together again until this film, Mr. Holmes. It felt like a great reunion, because it once again showed the two men on the very top of their game, and as a spiritual successor to the previous film, it is absolutely marvelous, and serves as a great adaptation of the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, one of the most unique and brilliant stories to feature Holmes.
It will be very difficult to say this without sounding biased, because Ian McKellen is truly one of my very favorite actors of all time – but this is quite possibly his best performance. McKellen might be iconic for his roles as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, and his performance as Magnero in the X-Men films, but he is certainly a man who is capable of giving some very nuanced performances in incredibly small films (anyone who would like to see McKellen at his very best, watch the 1996 film Apt Pupil, where he gives a masterclass of acting). In Mr. Holmes, McKellen plays the titular character at the age of 93, retired to his farmhouse and slowly growing senile, and at the age of 60, where flashbacks show Holmes’ final case. Of course, McKellen does it magnificently, and somehow he is able to play both the spry and concentrated Holmes in his younger days as a detective, and the conflicted and distant Holmes in his old age, slowly becoming a shadow of his former self. Part of the performance can also be attributed to the makeup, which is incredible at making McKellen look the part of a 93-year-old man without it looking fake or overly theatrical. McKellen is an absolute riot in the film, bringing his trademark upper-class wit to the character, playing off the character’s intelligence and charms, while being able to handle the most wry humor and most dramatic moments that the role requires. I honestly can’t imagine an actor more suited for the role than McKellen, so the fact that we can say that Sir Ian McKellen, one of the greatest actors of all time, has finally played one of the most iconic characters of all time, is absolutely tremendous. McKellen gives arguably the best male performance of the year, and it is just another brilliant performance from a brilliant actor.
However, the most surprising part of this film was that it wasn’t only the Ian McKellen showcase that we expected, as he had competition from a very unlikely source – the 12-year-old Milo Parker, who plays Roger Munro, the son of Holmes’ housekeeper who becomes good friends with Holmes and dives into his mind and brings him joy and comfort. I think the dynamic of “old-person-and-young-child” is a strange cinematic trope that is very rarely explored well, but when it is done properly, it is absolutely dynamite. Take, for example, the film St. Vincent, that pitted the grumpy Bill Murray against a young child, and it became a truly touching and endearing film. Mr. Holmes is very good at showing the chemistry between McKellen and Parker, and the two of them together is absolutely joyful. Hilarious, sweet and touching, Parker holds his own against McKellen, and Parker is clearly talented, so hopefully the exposure to McKellen will give him a fantastic career. Laura Linney takes a relatively thankless role and turns it into something wonderful. Playing Mrs. Munro, the angry and distant housekeeper, she has some lovely moments throughout. I do think Linney took this role simply to work with Condon again (he directed her to an Academy Award nomination in Kinsey, and in a few episodes of The Big C), and seeing her up on screen, it strikes me that she is a wonderfully talented actress that really deserves better roles than what she is getting. The trio of McKellen, Parker and Linney is absolutely wonderful, and just a riot to watch.
Mr. Holmes is a great film. It handles the mythology of Sherlock Holmes well, and serves as both a fascinating mystery story, but also a surprisingly tender story about life and death and the friends we make along the way. It is so touching and so wonderful, and one of the very best films of the year. I enjoyed this film so much, and I hope everyone seeks it out – it is quite simply a fantastic film that will entertain and touch you deeply. Simply fantastic work, and McKellen once again shines, as I hope he will continue to do so for many years to come.