Superheroes are having a good decade. Everywhere you look, Marvel Studios, Fox, and Sony are promoting their most profitable superhero films and merchandise. Their astounding superhuman powers, world-changing battles, and consummate heroism have captured the fascination of people all over the world. However, there’s another heroic character who’s also enjoying a surge of popularity this decade. A man who’s only powers come from his intelligence and five senses. A man who — in his 128 years — has had but one great foe. A man who doesn’t work with a team of elite warriors; just one doctor. A man who – as of late – has been having trouble remembering many of his thrilling exploits. I’m speaking of Sherlock Holmes, the subject of the new film, Mr. Holmes. Unlike the BBC series, the NBC show, and the Guy Ritchie films, Mr. Holmes portrays the struggles of the master, consulting detective in the twilight of his life.
Who better to expose the humanity of an aging, meticulous genius than Sir Ian McKellen? The actor is no stranger to playing larger-than-life characters grappling with their own mortality. McKellen received his first Oscar nomination for the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, where he played the stroke-plagued director of Frankenstein, James Whale. In fact, it was that film’s director and screenwriter – Bill Condon – who directed Mr. Holmes and convinced McKellen to join the project.
Unlike Gods and Monsters, where McKellen played a man distraught over the loss of his looks, wealth, and lavish lifestyle, Holmes bemoans the loss of something more. The movie joins Sherlock Holmes at the age of 93, as he lives a quiet life of beekeeping and horticulture in the Sussex seaside. Traditionally a loner, Holmes requires the aid of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), to help him with many of the things he used to take pride in doing himself. Living with them is Mrs. Munro’s son, Roger (Milo Parker); an inquisitive, sometimes aggressive boy who initially irritates Sherlock. After a lifetime of exaggerations to his personality by his partner, Dr. Watson, Sherlock can stand no more when he reads the doctor’s new book about his final adventure. He feels slighted and insulted by the many boasts and insinuations the book makes. The only problem is that he can’t quite recall what happened during his final case. Where once he was a man who could discover things that others couldn’t begin to see, he now needs assistance in recalling the most impactful memory. However, the more time he spends around the curious Roger, the more Sherlock’s memories return. When confronted with the real memories of his last case, it’s not the lack of skills he feels now; it’s the humanity he lacked the rest of his life.
The heart of Mr. Holmes lies in two different places. The first is that, although the film is based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, the concept is extremely original. Searching for humanity in a character as cold and calculated as Sherlock Holmes isn’t new, but the idea of grappling with it as he nears the end lends tremendous emotional weight to the narrative. The second is how Ian McKellen portrays Sherlock’s coming-to-terms with that realization. As a classically trained and well-seasoned actor, the depth of McKellen’s emotional gravitas is clearly present in every performance. His ability to go from brash to pitiable is amazing, and used skillfully in Mr. Holmes. The material is extremely intriguing, but it’s McKellen’s performance that makes it enthralling. Find showtimes and tickets for Mr. Holmes here.