"That case made me see that human nature was a mystery that logic alone could not illuminate."
Sherlock Holmes is popular again! It may be very unlikely that we’ll ever see another rendition of the Robert Downey Jr series but with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the sociopathic sleuth with excellent style in Steven Moffatt’s intelligent drama series, it should not come as a surprise that we now have another attempt to show some version of the famous detective, but this one is undeniably different from any version we’ve seen on screen so far.
In 1947, after journeying to Japan and witnessing the devastating effects of nuclear warfare back in Sussex an inquisitive young boy begins to question him, an aged Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellan) recalls the traumatic incident that drove him into retirement.
As a cinema character Holmes dates back almost as far as the invention of cinema itself. What Mr Holmes does rather brilliantly is take a character that we may previously have thought to be exhausted and put a fresh spin on it by, ironically, making him exhausted. McKellan and the script come together to create a nuanced portrayal. It’s easy to imagine Holmes having regrets later in life, and for a man who is renowned for his senses and deduction starts to lose them and finds his entire self rapidly unravelling during his final years as a result.
However, if you recall that other drama we had recently around an academic coping with mental deterioration, Still Alice, then you realise that the entire process could have been more. It’s rather one note in its exploration, taking the sensible road rather than really stretching both McKellan’s talent and the audiences emotions towards the character. Nevertheless his performance is one of quiet dignity and dull flair, conveying the sense of a great man well past his prime. Not just his voice, but his entire posture and stature to his crumbling all contribute to this sense of decline. Combined with some decrepit movement and playful interaction at an older age contrasted with his subversion to only logic and fact at a younger age makes the effect all the more noticeable.
If you are expecting an accurate portrayal of the classic character though you may be disappointed as this is most definitely a far stretch from what we know. Watson is gone, and only seen with a fleeting glimpse and there’s a definite lack of criminal activity. Of course one could view it as more of an analysis of decline. But once again if you look at a film like Still Alice you realise that it only really scratched the surface on that front as well.
Even if you regard the film as a more grown up and mature version of Holmes you would at least expect it to stretch you mental capacities a bit, make you think about the issues raised and the problems faced. But instead it’s no more mentally challenging than any other rendition, perhaps even less so than a couple.
The pace is rather slow, especially when compared to the modern interpretations of Holmes such as the Fincher style thriller feel of Sherlock and the fast paced action of Guy Ritchie’s version. The fact that the story is presented through flashbacks may add a sense of dramatic irony, but also kills some much needed suspense for the main story. You know Holmes survives this last case, you know he declines after and you know it ends in some kind of trauma so you’re not really surprised by the final act. But once again there are moments of enjoyment. Witty and humorous touches are added that give the film an added sense of style and charm. These include Holmes actually living next door to 211B Baker Street to find refuge from his fans.
Stylish, intelligent and moving as it may be, backed up by a remarkable performance from McKellan, Mr Holmes never delves deeply into its own themes or stretches itself in terms of plot or emotion.