A lot of people have played Sherlock Holmes. The Holmes character is such a part of British literature and film history, that it is easy to forget that he doesn’t actually exist. It’s a popularity that doesn’t seem likely to fade, with Benedict Cumberbatch bringing him to a whole new generation in Sherlock. Therefore, it’s kind of surprising that Sir Ian McKellen has never played him before.
However, that is no longer the case. As Mr Holmes sees Sir Ian take on the mantle of an elderly Sherlock, who has retired to the country in order to raise bees. Yet, in his 93rd year that famous brain is beginning to go and despite seeking help from Royal Jelly and strange plants from Japan, it’s causing Holmes some problems. Specifically, that he can’t remember his final case. The one that caused him to leave the profession behind and take up residence in his current abode thirty years before. There is an official version out there, written by Watson of course, but it doesn’t ring true to Sherlock’s gut feeling. He needs to find more.
This is an incredibly meta film. McKellen’s Sherlock lives in a world where the movies, the deerstalker and the pipe all exist, but just never as part of his life. They are the fictional Sherlock that Watson created. In fact, at one point he goes to the cinema to watch a film about himself, where in a clever moment he is played by Nicholas Rowe who starred in Young Sherlock Holmes. This just adds to the feeling that Sherlock is a real character, although one mythologised by his own fame.
Which is made all the more interesting because in many ways this is not a traditional Holmes tale. Yes there is a mystery, but it is one that happened thirty years in the past and is told via flashback. It’s a rather thin tale and in essence is not what this film is about. Instead, it is about an old man with an incredible brain having to fight the fact that it is no longer running at anywhere near 100%. His own mortality is causing Holmes to look back on the past and reflect on his life and his regrets and wonder whether he did it all right. Whether the life of solitude was the correct one to live.
And what a performance McKellen gives as that Holmes. Playing this incarnation in his sixties he has a twinkle in his eye and an arrogant spring in his step. He’s the classic Holmes all grown up. However, in his nineties this is a very different man. He is old and McKellen gives a wonderful turn as a man who is struggling to deal with the day-to-day realities of the world. His slow measured movements and heavy breathing all feel totally life-like. He is aided greatly by a fantastic make up job, which turns the rather youthful looking 76-year-old McKellen into an old-looking 93-year-old.
This means Bill Condon’s film is more character study than mystery. It takes a man at the end of his life and shows him looking back and trying to figure out who he was, the real man or the legend. What that gives you is a comfortable watch, something which is never too strenuous but will keep you engaged. It’s a film that, as Chris Hewitt said on the Empire podcast, you can’t help but feel is destined to be re-watched on rainy Sunday afternoons for years to come. The fact that McKellen puts on the performance he does, certainly confirms that it shan’t be forgotten.