Although I’d heard of “Mr. Holmes” before, I didn’t get round to seeing it until shortly before writing this review. Since I was fairly tired at the time of writing this review, it may be shorter or more abrupt than my usual reviews are.
Likewise, this review may contain some minor SPOILERS
As you may have guessed from the title, “Mr. Holmes” is a film (from 2015) about Sherlock Holmes. Set in 1947, this film focuses on Holmes as an old man who lives near the Sussex coast with a housekeeper and her son. Like in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, Holmes has dedicated himself to beekeeping in his old age.
However, thanks to both his failing memory and the curiosity of the housekeeper’s son, Holmes realises that he cannot recall the exact reason why he retired from detective work. He has vague memories of a case, but he suspects that Watson’s account of it was inaccurate. So, he must try to find out what actually happened during his final case….
One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it both was and wasn’t what I expected it to be. Although Holmes’ final case is an important part of the story, it isn’t really the main focus of the film in the way I had expected it to be. This is more of a poignant, tragic drama featuring Sherlock Holmes than a Sherlock Holmes film. It is also a film that will probably make you cry at least once.
Yet, despite the morose and sombre tone of the film, there are still hints of classic Sherlock Holmes within it. For example, he points out that 221b Baker Street was a false address created by Watson in order to prevent tourists bothering them. Likewise, there’s even a short Basil Rathbone-style segment too.
However, although Holmes does make a few clever deductions, they often tend to be fairly understated instead of celebrated. In other words, Holmes is presented as an intelligent, but ordinary, person – rather than the subtly superhuman character found in the stories.
Likewise, Holmes’ final case isn’t exactly the kind of story that Conan Doyle would have written. Then again, this is the whole point of the film’s story. It’s a story about Holmes’ weaknesses rather than his strengths. But, if you are expecting a “traditional”-style Sherlock Holmes mystery, then you’re probably going to be slightly disappointed.
In terms of the set design and filming, I cannot fault “Mr. Holmes”. Although most of the film is set within Holmes’ house by the coast, this is broken up by numerous flashbacks to both Holmes’ final case in London and a trip to Japan that he took in 1945/6, in search of a medicinal plant. All of the locations look suitably realistic, whilst also looking stunningly dramatic at the same time.
The acting in this film is, quite simply, superb. Although I disliked the tragic tone of the film, it was only able to carry as much emotional weight as it did because of strong performances from all of the central cast. Ian McKellen in particular gives an absolutely stellar performance as the elderly Holmes, although the decision that he should also play the “younger” version of Holmes was slightly ill-judged in my opinion. Whilst there is some contrast between the two versions of Holmes, it doesn’t really seem as great as the 25-30 year time difference that the film suggests.
Surprisingly though, Watson is never directly shown in this film. He is talked about, he appears in the distant background once, and we see a few close-ups of his hands but, we never really see him. Although I can understand the dramatic reasons for this – since it is very much a film about Holmes rather than Watson – it would have been nice to see more of Watson in this film.
All in all, as a drama film, this film is excellent and it carries a lot of emotional weight. However, it doesn’t really fit into my personal idea of what a Sherlock Holmes film should be. But, it’s a creative experiment that tries to explore and present the character in a complex, nuanced and unconventional way, and I have to respect it for that. But, if you’re expecting a “traditional”-style Sherlock Holmes adaptation, then you’re better off watching the sublimely brilliant ITV adaptation from the 1980s/90s.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, I’d probably give it about a four due to it’s creativity and the high quality of the acting, filming, writing etc… even if it wasn’t really my kind of Sherlock Holmes film.