Written for the screen by Jeffrey Hatcher
Directed by Bill Condon
Sherlock Holmes is a character so ingrained in our cultural imagination that it’s hard to think up any new spin on him. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented a character who became an archetype, even for procedural television, as the airwaves are still littered with brilliant assholes who owe their very existence to the original detective of 221B Baker Street.
Mr. Holmes, the latest depiction of Holmes, directed by Bill Condon and based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, manages to find new ground by emphasizing the character’s vulnerability and, thus, his humanity. Ian McKellen plays an aged Holmes past his mental prime, struggling against encroaching senility to remember the conclusion to his final mystery. The enigmatic case unfolds only as quickly as Holmes can remember it, which is to say, not very quickly at all. This initially straightforward case involves a concerned husband (Patrick Kennedy) and his beautiful but mentally ailing wife (Hattie Morahan), the latter of whom is devastated by the recent deaths of her children.
Flashbacks also detail Holmes’s recent trip to Japan in pursuit of a drug meant to bolster his memory, though this too is less straightforward than it seems — it is a Sherlock Holmes story, after all — as his young guide (Hiroyuki Sanada) reveals the tragic past of his nation (the film largely takes place in the wake of World War II) and his own problematic ties with Holmes. This is one of the film’s few weak points, as it slows the pace down and introduces a few too many unnecessary elements into the mix. There are mysteries and revelations aplenty in Mr. Holmes, but this insignificant subplot pushes things a little too far. No doubt it works well in the book, but it would have been better left on the cutting room floor for the purposes of adaptation.
Despite the time jumps, most of the film is spent at a cabin in the countryside, where Holmes is painfully alone but for the company of his put-upon housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her son, Roger (Milo Parker, an excellent young actor). His brother, Mycroft, and beloved friend Dr. Watson are both long gone, a fact expertly played out for maximum pathos late in the film. He has little left to do in the world but care for his beloved bees, curse his rotting memory, and bond with young Roger, who looks up to Holmes to his mother’s chagrin.
The film is, at times, too much like its title character in its restraint. The realities of aging and of memory loss, and even of the Munro’s money issues, are too often softened, and the cinematography is pretty and occasionally even beautiful without ever becoming particularly interesting. The performances nonetheless astound. McKellen evokes his character’s fragility and decay, as well as his residual brilliance, making him difficult and prickly but decent too — a trait often neglected in incarnations like the BBC’s Sherlock. His amazing performance sometimes overshadows his stellar supporting cast, particularly Linney, who does a good job despite not quite managing a convincing British accent.
Holmes was a character invented for the serial format, but Condon isn’t content to tell just another mystery of the week. The film aims not to be a continuation of his story, but a conclusion to it. He aims to get to the heart of the character’s most glaring personality flaw — his inability to understand others. The brilliant Sherlock Holmes here can understand seemingly any convoluted plot, but he can’t untangle the messiness of human nature and emotion. This duality has always been an essential part of Sherlock Holmes, but it’s never been interpreted so effectively and concluded with such finality. Only years later can Holmes face the mystery that forced his resignation from detective work and begin to understand it. In doing so, we understand him, and he understands himself. The film’s resolution is warm and sweet without ever becoming saccharine, and doesn’t feel like a cop-out, as it easily could have, but like the final revelation in a life full of them.
— Jeff Rindskopf