Reframing familiar literary characters is not a new idea; think The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Once Upon a Time, even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes, which stars Ian McKellen as an aging Sherlock, offers an unusually thoughtful take on the concept.
Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, the film contains plenty of mysteries, though not all are the kind Sherlock Holmes is famous for. It mostly probes into the sadness and frustration felt by a 93-year-old Holmes as he confronts his declining health (especially his failing memory) while trying to recall and write down the details of his final case. He can’t remember exactly why, but he knows the version his former partner Watson penned provided readers with the wrong ending.
The primary setting for this often melancholy (but, thankfully, rarely maudlin) task is the seaside home Holmes has occupied since his retirement, far from Baker Street but still a place where he’s occasionally recognized when he ventures into town. (This is not Cullin’s invention, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s, since we learn about the detective’s location shift in 1917’s “His Last Bow.”) His only companionship, aside from periodic visits from his tut-tutting doctor, comes courtesy of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (a frumped-up Laura Linney), a war widow, and her precocious son, Roger (Milo Parker). Wait! Before you run away screaming, know that Parker is, thankfully, a pretty endearing child actor, and his character, a budding detective who quickly takes to Holmes’ beekeeping hobby, is an important catalyst for helping Sherlock remember his decades-ago past.
As Holmes putters around his cottage, annoying Mrs. Munro like he did Mrs. Hudson all those years ago, we learn of his efforts to jump-start his once razor-sharp mind. He’s pursued natural cures like Royal Jelly (from his bees), and recently traveled to Japan (eerily, he visits the smoking ruins of Hiroshima) to find Prickly Ash, but neither has helped. Only spinning the tale to Roger—in segments, as he’s able to wrest them from his brain—has proven effective.
While the decades-old case is a McGuffin of sorts, the flashbacks propel the film forward with intrigue. Nothing against the main story—and the 76-year-old McKellan’s performance as a man nearly 20 years older is, as you might expect, masterful—but the sleuthing scenes are so much fun that I let myself wish the entire movie was a straightforward Sherlock tale. He’s hired by a distraught husband to trail his wife, a woman whose grief over two failed pregnancies has nudged her into strange behavior and, possibly, some dark interests.
The particulars of the case emerge as Holmes is able to piece them together, but the details are not as important as the feelings associated with them: sadness, regret (“I had deduced the facts, but failed to grasp their meaning”), and confusion (“I chose exile for my punishment, but what did I do wrong?”) These feelings, he finds, have haunted him even without knowing their cause.
Director Bill Condon is best-known for flashier entertainments; he helmed the last two Twilight films in addition to the musicals Chicago and Dreamgirls. But the film that elevated both him and McKellen to popular notice was Gods and Monsters, another work that fictionalizes a man’s final days (though in that case, it was a real person: Frankenstein director James Whale). At its heart, Mr. Holmes could be about anyone feeling the sting of unfinished business as old age settles in; it presents a powerful message about admitting one’s mistakes, and finding ways to seek closure that’ll bring personal peace of mind if nothing else.
But importantly, Mr. Holmes isn’t about just anyone. It’s Sherlock Freaking Holmes, which means the story is peppered with references to Mycroft Holmes and the Diogenes Club, as well as the fictionalized flair applied to the “real” Sherlock by Watson and others (the deerstalker hat, Holmes tells a disappointed fan, was a made-up fashion choice). And for superfans, there’s a nifty scene in which the “real” Sherlock Holmes goes to see a Sherlock Holmes movie, and the “fictional” Sherlock Holmes is played by Nicholas Rowe, who portrayed the detective in 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes.