There’s something irresistibly intriguing about the central conceit of Sir Ian McKellen playing an aged version of Sherlock Holmes. A beloved actor for both his iconic roles in geek ephemera and his endearing public persona, McKellen seems uniquely equipped to tackle the complexities of a character virtually as old as cult fandom itself. And thankfully, the results are pretty much on par with McKellen’s abilities, thanks to a surprisingly gripping screenplay and a plot that serves both the character and McKellen’s unique spin on playing him.
McKellen’s Sherlock is a 93-year-old man, living in self-imposed exile with only a housekeeper and her preteen son Roger as his company. His memory has started to fail him in recent years, with one particular case bothering him for his inability to remember it. As Roger begins to connect with Sherlock over a shared passion for beekeeping (a nice canonical nod to the original books), Sherlock begins to unravel mysteries of his own past, coming to realizations of why he feels guilt and failure as a detective for offenses that he cannot initially remember. This is mainly revealed through interwoven flashbacks that do a remarkable job of slowly unraveling the mysteries of both past and present and creating a parallel character development between past and present Sherlock that works to emphasize the dramatic tension of both arcs through juxtaposition. In other words, the film is masterfully edited.
One point of contention I’ve noticed amongst critics is the reliance on the intergenerational friendship trope as Sherlock befriends the young Roger, but honestly, I didn’t have much of a problem with it. It never overshadows Sherlock’s personal development and the focus is almost always placed on Sherlock, not on the less interesting dynamics between Roger and his mother. There are enough scenes to establish Roger as a fairly likeable character in his own right, but not so many as to overshadow the primary reason people want to see this film in the first place. And McKellan’s Sherlock is a pretty damn amazing interpretation of the character: a smug erudite who knows precisely how smart and capable he once was (and still is), but is tortured by the limitations his age is putting on his mind and body and is not entirely incapable of making human connections if he determines the effort is worth making. It’s a complex portrayal that well serves a complex character.
But aside from the fantastic lead performance and the very well-executed premise, the screenplay offers a number of delights that I rather didn’t expect, particularly in how it treats Sherlock as a metafictional character. I have a soft spot for stories where the lines between fiction and reality become blurred, and in this version Dr. Watson and Arthur Conan Doyle are one and the same person, with Watson’s recollections acting as fictionalized accounts of Sherlock’s actual cases. To see a curmudgeonly grumbling Holmes grouse about the inaccuracies of Watson’s accounts and even go to a cinema to see himself portrayed in a woefully melodramatic adaptation is as supremely entertaining as it sounds, and the commentary never gets old.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed Mr. Holmes. The minor quibbles that would have probably bothered me in other films weren’t as much of a concern here due to very solid writing, a good plot, and an excellent performance by Sir Ian McKellen. I’m not the biggest Sherlock Holmes fan, but I am familiar enough with the character to know when he is being done justice to, and this film not only embraces its source material, but understands it well enough to provide a proper bookend to the life of one of fiction’s greatest characters.