Longevity can be measured in many ways. The character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes first saw print in 1887, making him 128 years old, and he’s still going strong as one of the most widely-recognized fictional characters at large in the collective human imagination.
Sherlock Holmes on film is an impressive 99 years of age, having had his screen debut in 1916, the first of more than 200 movies featuring Holmes, a feat that makes James Bond look like a mere pup.
The character, it seems, simply does not fade. Every time quaintness starts to creep in around the edges of the great detective, he is re-imagined and returns with even greater vitality. In recent memory alone, Sherlock Holmes has gone through several healthy incarnations, from Jeremy Brett’s manic, sharp-edged Holmes in the 1980s television series to Robert Downey Jr.’s 2009 “Sherlock Holmes,” in which director Guy Ritchie was able to visually illustrate the sheer strength and energy of Holmes’ mind so well that the movie built up the velocity of an action film. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliant recent run in the BBC’s “Sherlock” series not only reiterates the character’s timelessness, but features him at the center of a series so exquisitely done that it could serve as a poster child for our new and oft-hyped golden age of television.
At 76 years old, Sir Ian McKellan also refuses to fade. Having spent 50 of those years on screen, his greater fame has come in latter decades with his portrayals of Magneto in the “X-Men” movies, and of the wizard Gandalf throughout the “Lord of the Rings” cycle.
But, while McKellan might be in the prime of his career, his Sherlock Holmes is not. This new Sherlock in “Mr. Holmes” is an old Sherlock, living a quiet life in the countryside with some assistance from a caretaker (Laura Linney) and her young son (Milo Parker). Once famous around the world, he now avoids people in favor of bees and fitful work on his memoir. His body is frail, and so is his mind.
“Mr. Holmes” is such a lovely and gentle meditation on aging that the movie would succeed even if it was not about Sherlock Holmes at all; a movie in which McKellan portrayed a character wrestling with memory loss and trying to make sense of his life as a whole would surely stand on its own. That this is a Sherlock story is a delightfully elegant move, though, since the movie does not need to spend time convincing us of the vigor of the younger man or the ferocity of his younger mind — after more than a century, we know that by heart. Even a man once defined by his powers of observation and deduction may eventually become a man who has great difficulty remembering names.
“Mr. Holmes” dances with an old Sherlock Holmes theme: Is Sherlock actually a good man? He’s a great man, surely, and a brilliant one, but the character is also arrogant and impatient and cold.
There are mysteries here, as well, but they are mysteries along the lines of, “Why are the bees dying?” and, “What is it about this old case that Watson got wrong?”
Watson is long since out of Holmes’ life, and without that friend to humanize and anchor him, the already abrasive personality of the detective keeps most people at an arm’s distance. This allows the movie to dance with an old Sherlock Holmes theme: Is Sherlock actually a good man? He’s a great man, surely, and a brilliant one, but the character is also arrogant and impatient and cold (Cumberbatch’s Sherlock identifies himself as a “high-functioning sociopath.”). Without friends in his later years and unable to trust his own mind, what then remains?
If all that doesn’t sound like the re-imagining of Holmes that you were looking for, then don’t think of it as the latest in a long chain of interpretations of the character. This is a special sort of occurrence, a story that happens after all the other stories (after World War II, even) and which can be told only because all those other stories and movies exist. It doesn’t replace any of them, but acts instead as a thoughtful companion piece.
Congratulations are due to both McKellan and Holmes for aging so well.
“Mr. Holmes” screens Sept. 4 and 5 at 7 p.m., Sept. 6 at 3 p.m., and Sept. 8 and 10 at 7 p.m. at The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth. Screenwriter Jeffery Hatcher will discuss the making of the movie at the Sept. 4 screening. Tickets are $11, available at themusichall.org or by calling 603-436-2400.