Ian McKellan stars as Sherlock Holmes in Mr. Holmes. (Giles Keyte/Miramax, Roadside Attractions)
Given his iconically British gravitas, it’s a small wonder that the Ian McKellen hasn’t played London’s legendary detective Sherlock Holmes already over the course of his five decades in theater and film, but as they say, “It’s never too late to change your luck.” Indeed, director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) finally had the good sense to cast the McKellen in his revisionist take on Holmesian mythology, Mr. Holmes, which sees the great thesp portraying a 93-year-old Holmes looking back on his adventure-filled life while nearing its natural end.
The film supposes a world in which Sherlock Holmes is a real person and master detective whose exploits were dramatized and exaggerated by his companion-turned-writer Dr. John Watson. We catch up to the elderly Holmes in 1947, as he returns to his humble Sussex cottage from an ill-advised trip to post-war Japan, toting a strange jar of goo derived from the prickly ash – a mysterious flower known for its anti-aging properties. Aiding Mr. Holmes at home is a world-weary housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her precocious young son, Roger (Milo Parker). Though Mrs. Munro tires of Holmes’ obsessive personality and fastidious mannerisms, Roger greatly admires the famed detective, helping the older man to tend the sizable bee colony he has set up in the backyard.
When Roger becomes closer with Holmes, he learns the true nature of his struggles: The sleuth is suffering from the onset of dementia, forgetting names, facts and, most importantly, the details of his earlier exploits. As it turns out, Holmes has taken it upon himself to write his own story for the first time in an attempt to right the wrongs of Watson’s best-sellers, centering the autobiographical tome upon his final case.
However, Holmes finds himself unable to call to mind what actually occurred during this last caper, the details of which are evidently so disturbing that they caused him to give up the profession for good and move into obscurity. Insistent on seeing his idol return to his former glory, young Roger takes it upon himself to help Holmes navigate the winding turns of memory lane, as the great man attempts to re-discover the dark secrets of his own past.
Mr. Holmes’ script, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullen’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, is finely written and full of sharp dialogue and strong character work. That being said, the meandering, unfocused plot is wholly unable to hold a candle to the taut storytelling employed over a century earlier by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In the pursuit of narrative complexity, Hatcher (by way of Cullen, evidently) muddles the story by including one too many plot-strands and paying off painfully few of them in the end. It would have been enough to simply see the aging Holmes and his boy-companion try to solve one last mystery, but instead, the audience is bombarded with confusing flashbacks from at least three different time periods (one month earlier, several years earlier, over 30 years earlier), which serve only to obfuscate the real thematic meat of the picture.
In addition, the actual case which McKellen’s Holmes insists was the gravest and bitterest of his entire career falls flat when we actually learn what happened. After all the build up, the grand twist barely registers when compared to the brutality and danger of some of Holmes’ canonical exploits.
All that being said, McKellen gives a predictably incredible turn as the master of deduction, lending his Holmes a flawed vulnerability unseen in any other actor’s interpretation of the role (including even the greats such as Rathbone, Brett and Cumberbatch). Linney also makes a meal out of a character that might register as cloyingly one-note in the hands of a lesser performer, and the peppy up-and-comer Parker makes an impressive splash in his nascent role as Roger.
Top-notch performances aside, Mr. Holmes unfortunately folds under the weight of its hubristic intentions. Were Condon and Hatcher satisfied to simply make the film a quiet character study and allow the acting to carry the story, it might well have worked. As it stands, however, the filmmakers overplayed their hand in regards to the mystery element, manipulating time and space in a cheap, half-baked slight of hand which ultimately undercut the stronger human elements at play.
Miramax and Roadside Attractions
Now in theaters
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