I remember reading years ago that of all fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes had had about the most movie adaptations. In the past several years, this is still easy to believe. Even “different” portrayals of the character now seem commonplace. Nor is it a new idea to make it different. As far back as 1988, the comedy Without a Clue turned the whole concept around by making Dr. Watson the real detective who’s stuck in the shadow of his own literary creation and the actor he hired to play him. And of course there’s the “rodent Sherlock Holmes” Basil of Baker Street made widely known in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, two years earlier. So now, while I enjoyed Sherlock and to a lesser extent the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film and its sequel A Game of Shadows (and just didn’t see the other recent versions), I’m getting a saturated feeling again. Do we really need more of this? Is there room for yet another adaptation, no matter how different?
It turns out that yes, if it’s different enough, there was room for one more.
Mr. Holmes, an adaptation of the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, stars Sir Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in his nineties — and fighting against a seriously deteriorated memory. The setup is immediately very different from any other version I’ve seen. Holmes has isolated himself to a small house in the middle of nowhere and focused on raising bees, but now he also has to focus on fighting his dementia. There are three intertwined storylines, one in the present, one in a recent flashback, and one back at the end of Holmes’s career as we know it. The story in the present deals with Holmes’s relationship with his housekeeper and her son and his struggle to remember what really happened in his last case. The recent flashback involves his trip to Japan to look for a cure for his dementia. The old story that Holmes gradually remembers and writes down concerns what seemed like yet another typical case, but which had been pivotal for him and ended his career — for reasons he can no longer remember.
In a lot of ways, it seemed like this was a story about dementia (if that’s the right term) told by means of Sherlock Holmes. Showing the mind that is deteriorating as being the most famously brilliant fictional one certainly serves to drive the point home, and might bring such things to the attention of people who would otherwise be uninterested. The irony of Sherlock Holmes losing his memory is similar to the recent real-life case of Terry Pratchett, the world’s greatest wit, coming down with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and later dying of it. The setup with Holmes also allows showing that people affected by such illness, no matter how debilitated in some way, don’t automatically lose all of their minds. Even when unable to remember people’s names, Holmes is still able to do his trademark “that thing were he looks at people and tells them where they’ve been,” inferring everything from just a few clues.
That said, it’s still a Sherlock Holmes story, and each of the three stories contains something like a mystery to be solved in the characteristic Holmes fashion — even the Japan anecdote, which doesn’t seem like it would. In the present, the mystery starts with the question of what’s been killing the bees but gets more serious later on. Admittedly, since the clues in that last one are largely facts about bees that would be readily at hand for an expert, it seems a little off to show it as something that needs figuring out. I personally enjoyed that part anyway — because I’m interested in insects and also solved it myself at the same time as Holmes.
The characters in the story are well drawn. Aside from Holmes, they don’t have that many facets, but this one story doesn’t need that. As for Holmes himself, I automatically expect something good from Ian McKellen ever since he was perfect as Gandalf, and he doesn’t disappoint. His Holmes is rather more smiling and relatively more human than I’m used to, though he’s still characterised as being a person focused on logic and not so much human emotion.
Then again, perhaps the less stony demeanor is intentional, as this Holmes considers the depiction of himself in a movie stereotyped. This is not the only way the movie discusses its “real” Sherlock Holmes as opposed to the one in the stories written down by Dr. Watson and their further altered adaptations. An element that embodies this difference is the deerstalker hat Holmes is known for that is not featured in the original stories; someone doesn’t even believe it’s him in real life because he doesn’t wear it. I mentioned Without a Clue above, and these movies both discuss the status of Holmes as a fictional character even within their fictional worlds. But whereas Without a Clue makes Holmes the fiction (and is analogous to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own relationship with the character), here Holmes is treated as the true original distorted by later stories, somewhat reflecting the relationship of the original stories with their adaptations. This also defines his relationship with Dr. Watson, who never really appears; even when he is briefly onscreen, his face is not shown. This ties to another of the main themes of the movie, but talking about that would spoil the plot. It’s all part of an exploration of the character of Sherlock Holmes.
Overall, this is a good movie with some interesting mystery and a touching story, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to see either.