Bill Condon | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG
Once-great detective Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) has retired to the countryside with his housekeeper (Laura Linney), her son Roger (Milo Parker), and his bees, but an unsolved case from late in his career troubles his dementia-addled mind. As he tries to remember the events, we also learn the significance of a trip he recently made to Japan, and the benefits of his growing friendship with Roger.
The story is slight and the pace sedate, the latter seemingly to stretch the former to feature length. I’m not saying it needs the quick-cut whizziness of Sherlock or the Downey Jr movies — doubly so as this is a movie about an older, slower Holmes — but there are times when it could do with a bit of a kick up the backside. It doesn’t help that Bill Condon’s direction goes for stately “prestige picture”, making this feel like a movie that could’ve been made at any point in the last 30 years. Again, I’m not calling for more bombast, but a little more flair wouldn’t have gone amiss.
There are strong thematic threads, though, about loss, loneliness, and the strength and importance of fiction. This is barely a mystery movie, and certainly not a thriller; it’s a character drama that happens to be about a detective and his last unsolved (or, rather, unremembered) case. Nonetheless, it didn’t need to be so ponderous about it. As such, the film is all about McKellen’s dual performance, playing Holmes both in his 60s and at 93, when he’s struggling with memory loss and slowly dying in retirement. The difference between the two versions is striking, achieved with minimal make-up but instead primarily via two very different types of physicality. It’s a showcase for the actor, as well as being a grand interpretation of the Great Detective.
Alongside him, the lad, Milo Parker, is very good, managing to holding his own against the knight of the realm. Also excellent is Hattie Morahan, playing the object of the case in Holmes’ flashbacks. She’s probably best known for playing embattled fellow parent Jane in Outnumbered, but she first garnered attention as one of the leads in the 2008 Sense & Sensibility miniseries and has done mostly dramatic work since, too. This is a relatively small part, but a high quality performance. Conversely, nominal co-lead Laura Linney is woefully miscast as the middle-aged housekeeper, struggling with an accent so poor I wouldn’t even like to attempt to guess where it’s meant to hail from. Otherwise, there are an array of recognisable faces (Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Francis Barber, Phil Davis, John Sessions) playing blink-and-you’ll-miss it roles that are beneath almost all of them.
There is much to commend Mr. Holmes, not least McKellen’s performance, but by the end I found myself feeling disappointed. Perhaps I’d invested too much expectation — it’s a great actor playing one of my favourite characters, after all — and it will improve on a future viewing. For now, I felt it could’ve been more.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.