No Deerstalkers or pipes to be found here…
In recent years, courtesy of Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr, the man/myth/legend that is Sherlock Holmes has enjoyed some of a renaissance. New generations have been introduced, in shining and action-filled packaging, to the stories and the iconic character. Yet the Mr. Holmes presented here is unlike either of those two portrayals. In fact, he is rather unlike any version we have seen before.
Ian Mckellan opens the film as 93-year-old Sherlock, on his way back to East Sussex from Japan after trying to find a mysterious substance to aid his failing memory. The location of his visit and reason for visiting are not initially transparent, but teased gradually during the early minutes. The very notion of a Sherlock without possession of an immaculate memory and infamous intuitive instincts poses the prospect of a very un-Holmes esque story.
This is true to some extent, the story itself does not follow the tradition of a who-dunnit or a ‘watch-as-he-expertly-solves-another-case.’ Instead, in a mirroring of the trauma and chaos of his growing senility, the plot jumps between three strands; present day (home from Japan), the distant past (30 years prior, working on his last case before self-enforced retirement) and the recent past (the trip to Japan). Each thread is interwoven, unable to be separated or developed due to it’s unestablished attachment to the others.
What is remarkable is how well Mckellan pulls this off in his performance. There is little/no need for a title to inform us of the year change, it is apparent from his performance (and some rather fantastic make-up work). His 93 year old Holmes manages to reflect our fears of the trauma of old age, without descending into characticture. We watch him move with melancholy and lose himself in a spiral of increasingly forgotten memories. His 63 year old Sherlock has the wit, charm and sharp senses as we would expect, though as the film develops we watch cautiously in await of the unravelling that cause the loss of his ruthless logic. What will he find when he start unravelling? Mckellan demonstrates all of this with such affection, grace and warmth as we are treated to two different investigations; the final case in his detective career and that of the self when all that is familiar is no longer certain.