Sir Ian McKellan’s Mr. Holmes has done something no other rendition of the classic detective has ever managed to do: give Sherlock a heart.
While the crime-solver is known for his intellect, his dispassionate approach to victims and villains alike, and his association with Dr. Watson, who serves as our way into the great man’s puzzle solving mind, this has nearly always produced a flat, one dimensional character that, while entertaining to watch, has given us no sympathy for the plight of the people he helps, or for his own lonely existence.
I’ve watched several men portray the deerstalker wearing sleuth, and while I was amused by Robert Downey Jr.’s ambiguous, mischievous Holmes, delighted by Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance (who now and again has a twinge of feeling), Sir Ian McKellan’s portrayal is the most unique, raw, and honest of them all.
We’ve been accustomed to Sherlock as a brain with no heart, no conscience, and no remorse. Which begs the question, why is he not a villain? What motivates him to remain a hero? What happens when he begins to age and loses his sharpness? And when will his pride and arrogance lead to his downfall?
Mr. Holmes provides answers to these questions, but not until Sherlock has aged. Now an old man, Sherlock has retired to the country to keep bees in an attempt to harvest royal jelly to aid his memory. Something is amiss. An old case re-emerges in his head and he must try to remember what happened and how the case ended.
With the help of a little boy, a visit to Japan, and a journal, Holmes must follow the clues once more to discover what happened in the case he can barely recall.
The fascinating thing about this is that once we strip away the false front of Sherlock’s intellect, we see who he really is — a man who has not been able to connect with another human being in his entire life. Even his relationship with Watson ended poorly. He has no one, and as he grows older he begins to feel a new sensation of regret.
Every character must have an arc if they are to be complete. While Sherlock’s arc may have taken longer, this only serves to make the journey all that more realistic. We often take years to learn things that on the surface seem so simple.
But at long last, Sherlock learns how to move past his intellect (the thing that both identified and imprisoned him) and embrace his emotions. While his intellect remains a part of him, it is no longer used as a shield to keep people at a distance.
Apart from the monumental task of completing Sherlock’s character arc, the cinematography is stunning, the music by Carter Burwell inspiring, and the editing and direction superb. Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Frances de la Tour, Hattie Morahan, Hiroyuki Sanada are excellent additions to the cast (particularly Milo Parker), bringing emotion and diversity into what could have been a bland palette.
While the film has received poor reviews, I would ask that you give Mr. Holmes a chance. It is not often that we see our heroes fall and yet return even more heroic and human than before. Our mistakes are what make us human, and that is how we learn — it is never too late. This is the lesson Sherlock learns, at long last.Image Credits: Miramax