'Mr Holmes' – Ian McKellen on playing the notorious detective in new Sherlock Holmes movie
Much loved actor Sir Ian McKellen fills us in on debunking the myth and portraying dementia in the new Sherlock Holmes movie from director Bill Condon.
We've seen scores of actors inhabit the role of the notorious detective, but there's originality in this new film. Sherlock Holmes, at 92, is brought to life by Sir Ian McKellen in Bill Condon's new film release, Mr Holmes.
Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes has long been one of the most iconic figures in English cultural history. But he's also, oddly enough, fictional. A creation of novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes draws tourists from across the globe to Baker Street to get a glimpse of those imagined headquarters where the slick young detective and trusty Dr. Watson managed to solve the unsolvable.
Now, instead of offering another pastiche of Holmes' canny ability to debunk superstition, it's this phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes' own mythical status that Condon's new film Mr Holmes addresses.
A final attempt to shed new light on the man behind the pipe and deerstalker, the film is based not on Conan Doyle's series but on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullen, Mr Holmes puts its own spin on the story of the detective with the magic touch.
Rather than portraying a young, sharp-witted Holmes, revived so often in Sherlock Holmes movies, here instead is a Holmes who's arriving at the end of his days – and beginning to lose his sharpness.
In this latest Sherlock Holmes movie, McKellen portrays Holmes as a grumbling retiree, living with his Housekeeper – played by Laura Linney sporting a faultless West Sussex accent – and looks back on his lonely life and occasionally troublesome case history with despair, whilst also suffering from the rapid onset of dementia that prevents him from identifying the cause of his grief.
Holmes then develops a touching friendship with the Housekeeper's young son, a boy wiser than his years, who helps him access his fading past. It's showing this personal side of the notoriously stoical detective, that McKellen says gives the film its heart. Holmes "wants to complete the emotional side of himself that’s been neglected. And so" says McKellen, "there’s hope for us all, I suppose."
The new Sherlock Holmes film also deals with another, perhaps unexpected issue, that of dementia. The aged Holmes' self denial of his own disturbing history leads him, at 93, to return to the root cause of his retirement: the final case that broke him. The film plays out in a series of jarring flashbacks that halt just at the moment of revelation, as Holmes writes his memories down in an attempt to concretise them whilst battling against the disease's rapid onset.
'I just went inside myself, where there's enough creeping dementia for me to exaggerate'
Where does inspiration for this kind of psychological condition come? Did McKellen research the role?
"No," he says. "I just went inside myself, where there's enough creeping dementia for me to exaggerate, and imagine. I think, actually, what I did was that I went for the decrepitude of the body and the mind. And put all my efforts into trying not to have either. So," says McKellen, "it was my own little bit of analysis, really."
With such an enigmatic disease as dementia, and such a highly personal one, says McKellen, there's no use in speculating, or trying to decipher, diagnose. "You can read all of these books, and you can put a label on what's the matter – 'Oh, he's on the autistic spectrum' or whatever – it doesn't help you to know that. It might help the shrink to know that. It might help with your medication. But actually embodying somebody whose mind and body are beginning to fail..." is, for the victim, pointless.
Many critics have bemoaned the arrival of yet another Sherlock Holmes adaptation – given the quick success of Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC's Sherlock, and Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Richie's Hollywood action franchise of Sherlock Holmes movies– but McKellen is less inclined to see it as a problematic. "To play a character that so many others have played", he says, is not "as difficult or remarkable or puzzling as you might think.'
"I've played Hamlet!" he exclaims. "If you started thinking about all the people who've played Hamlet, you'd never step on to the stage. But you do, because you know that so many people who've played Hamlet have had a success – it's a wonderful part. So don't deny yourself the possibility of discovering Hamlet inside yourself, or discovering something nobody else has noted."
"Sherlock Holmes wasn't invented – not even by Jeremy Brett – or the more recent successes of Benedict and Robert Downey. Good luck to us all, I say!"
'Even right to the end, there's more you can discover about yourself and about the world'
What does the character of Holmes mean to McKellen?
"I've just turned 76, and he's 93, so... I've got a bit more time! I think: don't give up, really. Even right to the end, there's more you can discover about yourself and about the world. That would be a good motto for an old person to have. And the old people I know who are keeping at it really are enjoying their lives. Even with all the aches and pains."
If you're looking for something experimentally high-brow, the film may not meet higher expectations. But McKellen's performance more than carries the film through, and Mr Holmes unapologetic about its hopeful final message for an older generation. If you want to be moved, but not necessarily challenged, Mr Holmes has all the heart and humour one could hope for.
McKellen sums it up in one sentence: "I love to be in a film that's got a happy ending, really."
We weren't disappointed. ★★★★★
Mr Holmes trailer