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The Game’s Afoot With An Aging ‘Mr. Holmes’

Sir Ian McKellan offers fresh take on familiar sleuth

Sir Ian McKellan plays Sherlock Holmes as an elderly man facing physical and ...

Credit: Miramax

Above: Sir Ian McKellan plays Sherlock Holmes as an elderly man facing physical and mental decline in "Mr. Holmes."

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After more than a century, Sherlock Holmes’ popularity continues to rise with a play at the Globe, more of the BBC series in the wings, and now Sir Ian McKellan taking on the role of the great detective for the feature film, “Mr. Holmes” (opening July 17 in select San Diego theaters).

Transcript

Best Sherlock Holmes Actors

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939), Basil Rathbone

The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959), Peter Cushing

Sherlock Holmes” (BBC series, 1964-65), Douglas Wilmer

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970), Robert Stephens

Young Sherlock” (1975), Nicholas Rowe

The Seven-Percent-Solution” (1976), Nicol Williamson

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (Granada TV, 1984-94), Jeremy Brett

Sherlock Holmes” (2009), Robert Downey, Jr.

Sherlock” (BBC series, 2010-15), Benedict Cumberbatch

After more than a century, Sherlock Holmes’ popularity continues to rise with a play at the Globe, more of the BBC series in the wings, and now Sir Ian McKellan taking on the role of the great detective for the feature film, “Mr. Holmes” (opening July 17 in select San Diego theaters).

Sherlock Holmes is renowned for his great mind and facility for deduction. Through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and numerous films, TV shows and plays the great detective displayed keen observation, shrewd reasoning and a willingness to think outside the box.

But what happens when that mind starts to fail?

We meet the Sherlock or “Mr. Holmes” as an old man, now in his 90s, and long retired to his bees and a country home. He doesn’t seem tolerant of other human beings and is dismissive of those who recognize him as the famous sleuth of Dr. Watson’s stories.

Holmes may be retired but he still has one mystery left to solve, and it involves a case from the past but one that he can no longer recall the details of. The mystery involves his final case and the woman at the center of it.

Holmes sits down to write a story of his own, one that will contradict the fictional account provided by Watson. But Holmes is plagued by growing physical and mental frailty. He now depends on his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), for physical aid, and her bright son Roger (Milo Parker) for inspiration.

Roger is a fan and he sneaks into Holmes’ study to read the story the great detective is writing. But Holmes’ memory is foggy and often inaccessible as he tries to explain to Roger: “I searched for something to jog my memory of the actual case and there it was. A picture. A few years ago I could have told you everything about the woman in that photograph. Certainly I’d recall if she was victim or culprit, but that night all I knew for certain was that case was my last and that was why I left the profession.”

The film “Mr. Holmes” is based on Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind.”

It sets up a clever narrative that contrasts the aging Holmes with the detective in his prime. The result is a fresh take on a familiar character with a stellar performance by Ian McKellan.

When we first see Holmes, I had a momentary shock thinking, “OMG! Ian McKellan has gotten old!”

Happily, that was just makeup and performance because when the story cuts to the past we see a much more vigorous and sharp Holmes courtesy of Sir Ian. He’s perfectly cast, boasting a fierce acting intelligence that knows exactly how to play Holmes as arrogant without making him unsympathetic.

Photo caption: Sir Ian McKellan plays an aging Sherlock Holmes who finds inspiration in his ...

Photo credit: Miramax

Sir Ian McKellan plays an aging Sherlock Holmes who finds inspiration in his housekeeper's young son Roger (Milo Parker) in the new film, "Mr. Holmes."

Complimenting McKellan’s performance are Bill Condon’s direction and Cullen’s script from his own novel. Neither is wildly cinematic but both are examples of solid and thoughtful craftsmanship.

In addition to the contrast between the aging Holmes and his sharper self, there is also an exploration of the disparity between the private and the public Holmes. Dr. Watson created a literary version of Holmes that creates certain expectations for people.

But of course the real versus the fictional Holmes has an added layer of irony since both are creations of Conan Doyle. And the final element to this elegant little puzzle box is that the famous sleuth is investigating the mystery of his own emotions, emotions that he had dismissed as pointless for the majority of his life.

For a man who is so sharply observant of details, he fails miserably at understanding human emotion on a most basic level. So he never considers how hurtful he is to Mrs. Munro when he notes matter-of-factly that exceptional children can come from ordinary parents. Emotions, unlike scientific facts, are always changing and sometimes have no clear resolution, and as such are difficult for the coldly analytical Holmes to fathom.

Holmes’ final case proves to be about learning how to read clues of daily human interaction so that he can respond in a more humane manner to those around him, people that he will have to depend more and more on.

The game’s afoot yet again and surprisingly “Mr. Holmes” (rated PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking) finds a fresh and even poignant way for us to re-view the great detective.

And a tip of the deerstalker hat for the casting of Nicholas Rowe (who played the title character in “Young Sherlock”) as the screen Sherlock of the film-within-the-film in “Mr. Holmes.”

Here's a fine list of actors who have played Holmes.

ALso check out my interview with Sir Ian McKellan from 1996 when we sat and chatted about "Richard III" and bringing Shakespeare to the screen. It is available on the new Cinema Junkie podcast. Please subscribe and give us a rating.

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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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