After the iconic performance in Lord of the Rings, it’s easy to forget that Sir Ian McKellen is an amazing actor in his own right. Then you see films like this ,that truly give this man the chance to shine, and it makes for one of the most engrossing stories about a character who has been insanely elevated beyond all belief. BBC has a lot of blame in this. The series Sherlock had people nuts. I myself was engrossed, until I saw the third season, and the series buried itself under its own bullshit. The character of Sherlock Holmes has been done to death. There’s no denying it. Ironically, my favorite versions of the character was not done by Benedict Cumberbatch. They are done by Rupert Everett and now, Sir Ian McKellen. I won’t claim to call this some landmark film, but it is one of the best portrayals of a character who has been turned into a superhero by modern mainstream culture. Let’s get into the details.
The film chronicles the titular character at the very end of his life. Sherlock lives in solitude, having left his detective business after a case that affected him. However, with John Watson gone, part of him wants to have this one case be written into a story that gives a true account, as you find out that Holmes actually despised Watson’s stories of his accomplishments. He viewed them as insulting to his talent. Part of me can’t help but think that that’s a subtle wink to modern media’s portrayal of the character. Just a thought. With the help of a kind housekeeper (played by Laura Linney) and her young son, he is pushing through his growing senility in order to have this one last case be told. The last that ever will be.
Pretty much the entire film hinges on the cast, so that will be the thing that gets the most press in this post. But I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about other elements. For starters I love the use of setting. The film is very good about keeping the exact time period very shrouded in mystery. It first hints at it being set after World War I, but drops some subtle nods at it being after World War II. I kind of like that. I like movies that don’t feel the need to hold your hand and tell you every little thing.
Then there is just how minimal this film feels. You see very little of Holmes’ life. The story is very centered around three time periods. First is the time of the case that got him to quit. Second is the time of the film’s present, and lastly is a sub-plot about Holmes’ trip to Japan to get a compound to help his memory as he is desperate to get this last story out before his own life comes to an end.
Something else I liked is how you never see Watson in this movie. At least, not his face. They keep that part of him hidden away, for a reason. You find out from his narration that Holmes saw Watson very negatively at the point where he is talking about the events of the past. He saw a film of one of their cases and he openly despised it. He saw it as an insult to him and his method. Then you learn that what happened after the last case left the two very much estranged and it continued that way until the point where it is hinted that his companion died.
All of this is window dressing, though. The entire quality of this movie is all in the performances of the titular character and his housekeeper. I would be totally remiss if I didn’t talk about Linney’s role in this movie. She is fantastic. Much like Mrs. Hudson, she doesn’t think much of Holmes. She sees him as a senile old man who is more trouble than he’s worth. But as her son starts to bond with the old detective, she gets very hostile, seeing it as the boy just setting himself to lose another father figure, just as her husband had died in the war. You get to hear a very intense conversation between her and her son talking about why she felt the way she did, and it was pretty feels-inducing stuff.
But, naturally, Ian McKellen stole the show. Every frame of it. He was so incredibly in his element in this film. Through all three stories, we see three different perspectives on the same character. Whether it be the detective of his younger years, still sure of his prowess, the man who is secretly trying to fight becoming senile in Japan, or the broken old man who has realized just how alone he is in the world. Any of those three would be hard to do on their own, but McKellen takes on all three while living up to the namesake of his name. Unlike the other versions, where Holmes is seen as some super-intellect who can magically deduce things based on inconsequential things. Here, he is shown taking in facts and then coming to conclusions based on ACTUAL deduction.
What about this movie doesn’t work? For starters, the ending. It’s just kind of…dull. All of the building that the movie does, only for it to go not much of anywhere and just stop. It is also a very harsh movie on the lore of this character. If you are one of the people who really thinks a lot of the stories about him, you’ll get to find out what he thinks about you very quickly and the stories you like. The plot of this film is slow, while taking a shit on the mystique of the character. If that bothers you, you won’t like this film.
It’s not perfect, but I honestly like this movie for bringing something new to the table about a character who gets SO much adulation. Sir Ian McKellen shows his acting chops once again. Perhaps next time I’ll get to see him in something more fun. Still, good movie. That’s where I’ll leave it.
8 out of 10