Synopsis: An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman. (From IMDb)
Review: First appearing in 1887, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most beloved literary detectives. Holmes is a London based “consulting detective” who possesses an extremely analytical mind. He is known for astute logical reasoning, rudimentary forensic science, and ability to adopt any disguise. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four full length novels and 56 short stories featuring Holmes and Dr Watson. The events depicted in the stories take place from about 1880 to 1914. In recent years there have been a myriad of iterations of Sherlock, on both the silver and small screens. Elementary and Sherlock are two TV shows that depict Holmes in a modern setting. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and A Game of Shadows, starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, are the latest big screen adaptations. Mr. Holmes offers a unique twist on the classic Holmes story; it offers a glimpse into the psyche of an aging individual who is wrestling with his earthly legacy. This is an exploration into a different facet of the Holmes’ character.
Mr. Holmes is based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind. The film narrative deals with three separate storylines that are fleshed out using flashbacks. This results in a slightly choppy non-linear story. However, the non-linearity works within the context of the main narrative. Neither of the “mystery” subplots are especially suspenseful and are rather predictable. But the narrative remains compelling thanks to the relatively streamlined story and Ian McKellen’s performance. Ultimately, Mr. Holmes is more a reflection on the truth and personal relationships rather than clever plot twists. Instead of showing a young man with a deerstalker hat, pipe, and unfailing intellect, Mr Holmes is about an old man riddled with regrets.
Set in 1947, the now 93 year old Sherlock Holmes resides in a remote farmhouse in Sussex. He has had to put up with the public expecting him to be exactly like Dr Watson’s literary depictions. Now Watson is dead and a lonely Holmes is desperately trying to reconnect with the one passion of his overly rational life. His days are filled with beekeeping and harassing his housekeeper, Mrs Munro. His is depressed and living in anonymity far from the prying eyes of the public. When not tending bees, Holmes desperately tries to job his memory about the case that caused him to retire. Thirty years earlies Holmes worked his final case, a mystery regarding the wife of an aggrieved husband. It was a case in which Holmes got something wrong and caused him to retire out of shame. However, Holmes is now trying to remember the details of the case to set his mind at ease and restore his legacy. And set right the ending of the story, Watson ended the tale with a few too many embellished half-truths for Holmes’ liking. In the meantime, Holmes begins to form his first meaningful relationship with young Roger, Mrs Munro’s son.
Bill Condon has made a career out of making movies about the last days of faded idols, Gods and Monsters possess similar thematic elements. The film is expertly crafted and slowly paced, it felt slow. However, the pacing would not have been so noticeable if the plotting had not been so heavy handed. Mr Holmes is a stately and elegant period drama. The cinematography is gorgeous. However, the narrative is missing one key component: a resonating mystery. The narrative is full of emotional platitudes that are quite moving and the beekeeping metaphor is intriguing. Most of the melodrama arises in the third act and is laid on heavily. However, the deft acting by the cast infuses the narrative with sufficient dramatic heft to make it interesting.
Sir Ian McKellen delivers a strong performance as an elderly Sherlock. He does a great job portraying a man who is trying to reconcile who he actually is with the man everyone believes him to b thanks to Watson’s stories. This movie only works because of McKellen’s subtle acting skills. All the action is built around the slow disintegration of Sherlock’s mind. McKellen plays the role to frightening perfection. It is almost as if Sherlock is a real person, which is how acting is supposed to work. Other than Sherlock none of the other characters are fully developed.
Milo Parker plays the precocious Roger, a sort of Sherlock in training. Roger is intelligent, angry, and a force to be reckoned with when he chooses. However, while Parker more than holds his own against McKellen, Roger feels more like a plot device than an actual character. Hattie Morahan leaves a lasting impression as the depressed Ann Kelmont, the wife at the heart of Sherlock’s unsolved case. Laura Linney is stuck playing the unremarkable Mrs Munro. She spends most of her time lingering in the corner looking excessively worried. All these supporting characters serve their purpose and flesh out the world of the narrative with their brief appearances. Sherlock is the most fascinating character though, which is why the storyline never lingers on anyone else for long stretches of time.
Condon excels at crafting polished films that boast strong performances. But his work has a tendency to appear overly staid and uniform. This is quite noticeable when he directs rather distinctive material. Mr. Holmes contains several moments of palpable regret and loss. However, the over arching narrative comes across as a slightly bland character study about a lonely old man who befriends a precocious boy who together learn about the wondrous magic of storytelling. While the film is ostensibly about more than person relationships, it eventually ends up talking about the importance of forming meaningful connections. Overall, I would see this movie again because McKellen is one of my favorite actors and he gives a stellar performance. Mr Holmes is a nice change of pace from the usual Sherlock Holmes adaptations and I appreciate the original spin. But the narrative is missing that special zing needed to elevate it from decent to true movie excellence.