Sherlock Holmes is currently hot property, having recently been played with OCD by Benedict Cumberbatch, ADHD by Robert Downey Jr. and MDMA by Jonny Lee Miller. Now, Sir Ian McKellen steps comfortably into the role, swapping the deerstalker for a top hat and the hard drugs for beekeeping.
Based on a novel by Mitch Cullin, Mr. Holmes sees the great detective retired and living in a remote Sussex farmhouse at the ripe old Christopher Lee age of 93. He’s haunted by a forgotten case from his past, which is woven into the narrative like tweed; very homely and rather boring. But the mystery is secondary to the character, wonderfully played by McKellen; the latest in a growing line of The Hobbit stars to grace the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. How long until Hugo Weaving gets to play Moriarty?
But the Sherlock Holmes connection is almost irrelevant, and that’s probably the film’s greatest strength. Unlike Mark Gatiss/Stephen Moffat’s fanboy approach or Guy Ritchie’s cartoony version, Bill Condon’s drama is distinguished by its real-world setting and three-dimensional characterisation. It’s an exploration of a man growing old; a man who happens to be defined by his intellect, whose memory is deteriorating. That he’s Sherlock Holmes is incidental, save for a few postmodern flourishes along the way.
Although uneven, Mr. Holmes is a curious character study; a pensive deconstruction of solitude, with clear shades of Vertigo. McKellen is ably supported by Roger Allam as a doctor, Milo Parker as a precocious child and Laura Linney as a housekeeper, whose Sussex accent is elementary to say the least. As we know from all costume dramas, everyone in the past was from the West Country; see also Mr Turner. This is the better film, although it’s stifled by a similar stateliness. After all, it’s produced by BBC Films; no shit, Sherlock.