|'The trivial nature of much of what Condon chooses to do with the iconic character at his disposal is liable to frustrate many'.|
Fans of Sherlock Holmes have been spoilt for choice when it comes to both big and small screen versions of Arthur Conan Doyle's infamous private detective throughout the 21st Century. Benedict Cumberbatch has provided a modern-day version of Holmes in the BBC's Sherlock, whilst Jonny Lee Miller has provided a transatlantic spin on a similar idea in CBS series Elementary. Robert Downey Jr. meanwhile has brought something of a steampunk action hero flavour to his Victorian Holmes during two big screen outings so far. The question therefore raised first of all by Mr. Holmes, Bill Condon's latest variation on the character, is a simple one: do we really need it?
The question may be simple; the answer, less so. What Mr. Holmes in fact presents us with is arguably more than one version of Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen). More precisely, we see the character at two distinct points in his life and feeling considerably different at each. The first is the 93-year-old Holmes of 1947, isolated by his own choosing in the Sussex countryside, with only his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), her young son Roger (Milo Parker) and the bees he keeps in his apiaries for company. The second rewinds thirty five years to when Holmes was still living in London, taking as its focus what would become the detective's final case.
As a cinematic presence, McKellen cannot be knocked. His performance here is as reliably strong as ever, convincingly transforming - with the help of some impressive make-up and subtle visual effects - to become both considerably younger and considerably older than his true age. As a version of Holmes the established fictional character, however, MeKellen feels less consistent. The 1912 Holmes feels authentic throughout, but the 1947 version occasionally becomes too far removed from a recognisable extrapolation from Conan Doyle's work, at times feeling too much like an anonymous old man. Whilst there's perhaps a case that this was Condon's intention, that doesn't excuse the fact that his decision regularly misfires.
Away from McKellen's central performance, Mr. Holmes has difficulty in ever becoming more than ordinary. The pace is unhurried for much of the running time, with a primary narrative thread so slow burning that at points the director manages to douse it completely. That we spend more time in 1947, the less interesting of the two main time periods, is frustrating when the 1912 story told in fragmented fashion here feels as though it could potentially have offered the intrigue and intelligence many in the audience will surely have been wanting from a Sherlock Holmes tale. Adding in a third underdeveloped flashback narrative thread for very little pay-off does nothing but unnecessarily muddle and water down Condon's film as a whole.
Your enjoyment of Mr. Holmes will in the end largely rest upon how much you get from McKellen's strong central performance. The mystery narrative is undeniably engaging, but the trivial nature of much of what Condon chooses to do with the iconic character at his disposal is liable to frustrate many. Did we need this version of Sherlock Holmes? Probably not, although had McKellen's aging detective found himself in a stronger story, the answer may well have been different.