Sherlock Holmes, the character, has been around for over a century, and plenty of fans have an idea of what Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous creation should be like.
That’s what makes director Bill Condon’s take on the character so refreshing: Mr. Holmes actually treats the famous detective as a human being. SPOILER-FREE review after the cut.
Most fans, when they think of Sherlock Holmes, picture the man of pure logic. Holmes picks up clues with ease, all the while wearing the famous deerstalker hat and accompanied by his good friend Dr. John Watson. Holmes doesn’t give into emotions and can pick out a person’s life story with just a few seconds worth of observation without the person even saying a word. He’d then go off and solve the case, finding clues that the police and anyone else looking into things may have missed. Holmes can come across as boorish, condescending, and eccentric, and some modern interpretations tend to make him look almost dangerous.
That’s what makes Condon’s film so distinctive. Ian McKellan plays Holmes not as a legend, but as an old man. His Holmes is showing signs of dementia. He’s having trouble remembering his last case, and it’s painful for him. As a man who lives by his mind, the idea he may be losing it is a potent symbol.
Doyle’s Holmes famously ended his career and moved out to the countryside to raise bees. I read through all of Doyle’s adventures, and aside from a pair of stories narrated by Holmes himself instead of his usual narrator in the form of Dr. Watson, it does seem odd that Holmes would do, well, that. No explanation was ever given by Doyle as to why Holmes ended up that way. Condon’s film explores this time in Holmes’ life as it tells three parallel stories. The viewer gets to see Holmes living out his final years with his Irish housekeeper Mrs. Monroe and her son Roger, a recent trip Holmes took to postwar Japan, and the final case where he has been tasked to find out why a young wife is behaving in mysterious manners.
Part of the point of the movie is to show the disconnect between the real Holmes and the fictional one Dr. Watson wrote about. Watson-the-character only appears briefly in the movie, and the viewer doesn’t even get to see his face. It is almost as if the character is not so much Dr. Watson as it is Conan Doyle. Holmes takes his absent friend to task for his writing style and the inaccuracies in his work.
McKellan’s Holmes is a lonely man. He’s outlived all his friends, and the closest he has to a friend is young Roger. He still has his powers of observation, but he cannot remember why he exiled himself. The story unfolds over time in this slow, beautifully shot film.
This movie isn’t your typical Sherlock Holmes movie. In fact, if it didn’t feature Holmes as the lead character, I doubt it would even qualify as a geek movie. About the only complaint I have is American actress Laura Linney’s questionable Irish accent.
So, with that in mind, let’s give this movie nine mysteriously dead bees out of ten. Fans of Holmes and McKellan will certainly get a lot out of this. Anyone looking for a traditional, pulpy sort of Sherlock Holmes mystery should steer clear.