The best thing about "Mr. Holmes", the new film from director Bill Condon, is the performance from Ian McKellen as the aging super-sleuth at two different periods in his late life. The least satisfying element of the film is the long-forgotten case Sherlock Holmes seeks to solve in his last days. Really, the narrative becomes a vehicle for McKellen's work. In the hands of a lesser talent, this would be a bigger problem. Here? Just sit back and enjoy.
When we left the screening, my husband commented "I don't think I have ever seen Ian McKellen in anything bad... Except for that television show..." I had to agree. And the television show he is referring to is "Vicious", a horribly dated, unfunny 'comedy' about an old married gay couple (McKellen and Derek Jacobi) who sit around and insult each other and their friends. It looks like it was made in the 70s, yet was filmed only last year. Worse, the jokes are the kind of putdown humor people might have found funny in the 70s, but these grow old very fast.
But I digress. McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective, who is now living out the last of his days at a rural cottage in Surrey. His daily interactions involve his overworked housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker), and his bees. It is 1947 and Holmes has just returned from a long, arduous trip to Japan, to secure some prickly ash, which he has been led to believe will help restore his memory. His Japanese host, Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), is looking to solve a little mystery of his own. Upon his return, Holmes, in his 90s, is visibly weak and tired. But he uses the prickly ash to get his memory working overtime - he wants to solve his last case, his only without Dr. Watson at his side, left unfinished more than twenty years previously: Thomas Kelmont (Patrick Kennedy) fears his wife, Anne (Hattie Morahan) might do herself some harm as a result of some unfortunate life circumstances. As Holmes remembers the story, he writes it down and lets his new protégé Roger look it over.
Watching McKellen is almost a master class in watching a great actor completely create a new character for us. We have all seen Sherlock Holmes before, whether in a rerun of the black and white films from the 40s, watching Basil Rathbone don the deerstalker. Perhaps one of the more recent iterations – Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr. All use the ideas created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in some fashion. Most of the versions are pretty faithful to the original creation, but in recent years, some liberties have been taken. Cumberbatch's Sherlock solves crimes in modern day London, using all of the modern technology trappings that come with modern life. Downey Jr.'s version is more authentic, if more sarcastic, but his adventures are much faster-paced. In "Mr. Holmes", McKellen creates a different version of the sleuth, in his seventies and in his nineties. This is a Holmes we could envision Conan Doyle writing, if his interest in the character had not waned so early on.
Critical of most of Watson's "inventions", popularized by his successful series of stories detailing their cases, Holmes is now an old man living out the remainder of his life in a small house in Sussex. You can see the ravages of age etching themselves across Holmes' face as he comes to new realizations about how the age is affecting his life. When someone uses a particular skill, emphasizing that ability, the loss of it becomes particularly painful.
Now in his 90s, remembering the facts about a case he tried to solve some twenty years before is becoming harder and harder. This makes McKellen's Holmes a fascinating creation. Initially, we get the sense he is bitter, angry at the loss of his facilities. But rather than dwell on this one aspect of his character, Holmes is essentially racing against time to complete the last puzzle, or puzzles depending on how you view the film, in his life. He doesn't have the time to remain bitter, so he pushes these initial feelings to the side to concentrate his energies on solving the case.
There is also the character of Roger, the young son of his housekeeper. This type of character is an invitation for the filmmakers to go down a well-trodden road – the little boy makes Holmes a happy curmudgeon. While there is a bit of this, it is significantly toned down and the change in Holmes seems both natural and welcome. He takes an interest in the boy when the child takes an interest in his work. When Holmes realizes Roger has a head on his shoulders, he shares the story of his last case. Initially, Holmes doesn't seem to want to acknowledge the young man, but as they begin to delve into the last mystery, Holmes learns more about both Roger and his mother, making him a more well-rounded man as well.
McKellen balances the different aspects of this Holmes, making him a great interpretation of this oft-seen character. In his 90s, Holmes is weaker, more feeble, less able to get around on his own, always using a cane. He tempers the crankiness with a growing fondness for his new friend and his new housekeeper. And as the story flashes back more than twenty years, we see a different Holmes, still enjoying the success of his fame and his friend's extremely popular 'fictions'. He seems a little full of himself, cockey and used to the fame created by Watson's published stories. As the movie progresses, we see more examples in both stories, creating a richer, deeper character.
It really is a masterful performance that I am sure will be remembered come Oscar time.
Laura Linney plays Holmes' overworked housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, a war widow with a young son. Milo Parker plays Roger, the young boy who misses his father. Roger Allam (TV's "Endeavor", "V for Vendetta", "The Queen"), Phil Davis (TV's "Poldark", the British version of "Being Human") and Frances de la Tour (TV's "Vicious") have small roles, adding some nice color to the background. Hiroyuki Sanada is also good as Mr. Umezaki, Holmes' Japanese host, who may have a secret or two of his own.
The biggest disappointment in "Mr. Holmes" is in the long unsolved case the great detective seeks to piece out before he leaves this mortal coil. Quite honestly, it isn't that complicated and seems like something better suited to a television mystery. If the great Sherlock Holmes can't solve a case, revisiting it two decades later, the mystery should be a little complex. And when it isn't, it seems a little disappointing.
Ultimately, this last case is really a device for us to revisit this great detective in the last years of his life. It isn't about the case as much as it is about witnessing how he handles the case. The relative simplicity of the case is understandable, because it gives us more time to concentrate on Holmes. But it is still a case that perplexed the great Sherlock Holmes. Because of this, it needs a little more heft.
Bill Condon is a very good director who seems drawn to everything from the eclectic ("Gods and Monsters", "Kinsey"), to the mainstream ("Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and 2") and everything in between ("Dreamgirls"). He and McKellen created "Gods and Monsters", bringing the British actor some renewed acclaim before he got crushed under "The Lord of the Rings" and "X-Men" juggernauts. I like Condon's smaller films better; they seem more well-suited to his ability to coax out great performances from his actors. When he has to worry about bigger productions, he has less time for this.
In "Mr. Holmes", Condon brings his customary attention to detail in recreating Japan immediately following the end of World War II and two different time periods in England. All of these details help to create a lush landscape, so lush it almost seems romanticized. Even Japan, still dealing with the effects of the War, seems particularly vibrant. This may seem like a misstep, but in fact it helps to sell the literary antecedents of this material.
"Mr. Holmes" is an example of a great actor at work.