Mr. Holmes is a solid (if unremarkable) period drama that is anchored by a great Ian McKellen performance as an old Sherlock Holmes.
Mr. Holmes picks up in the year 1947, as a 93-year old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) now spends his days at a remote farmhouse in the Sussex countryside, tending to his bees. Holmes’ memory has started to fade, though he attempts to counter-act his deteriorating mind by consuming royal jelly, as well as a unique substance (known as prickly ash) that he gathered from a recent trip to Japan.
It turns out Holmes is trying to recall the details of his final case, which involved a troubled married woman named Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan). Holmes, with some assistance from his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and especially her young son Roger (Milo Parker), sets out to recover the missing pieces of the true story behind his retirement, as opposed to the ‘official’ version written by the late Dr. John Watson. What Holmes discovers in the process changes his own perspective on his fame, his time as a detective, and the long life that he’s led.
There have been multiple iterations of the Sherlock Holmes character in recent years, between the big screen (director Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films) and TV (Sherlock, Elementary). Nonetheless, Mr. Holmes stands out as a unique addition to the Sherlock Holmes pantheon, offering a quiet period drama about an aging individual who just happens to be the real Mr. Holmes, while at the same time exploring different facets of the Holmes character (and his legacy) than its peers have.
Mr. Holmes is based on Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind”, which was adapted for the big screen by scribe Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty, The Duchess). The film successfully juggles multiple story threads set in the past with the main narrative in the present, by way of flashbacks that generally arise organically from Holmes’ efforts to piece together a life that he can no longer easily remember. The ‘mystery’ elements and dramatic reveals of Mr. Holmes are on the predictable side, but still prove effective thanks to the film’s (mostly) clean and streamlined narrative. Ultimately, Mr. Holmes is more about the thematic substance (serving as a reflection on the value of truth and fiction in a person’s life) and not focused on providing clever plot twists or unexpected turns.
Director Bill Condon and Ian McKellen explore similar ideas and themes here as they did in their previous collaboration, Gods and Monsters, but the Sherlock Holmes character allows the pair to avoid merely rehashing their past work together. Condon and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (Lone Survivor) stage the proceedings in Mr. Holmes in a visually handsome manner that avoids ever being over-showy; combined with the carefully detailed production design by Martin Childs (Shakespeare in Love, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), Mr. Holmes ends up having a very lovely historical setting, if not per se one that’s all that expressive or memorable. Condon’s movie nevertheless has a polished look on the whole (save for a scene in post-WWII Japan, where the smaller budget starts to show), and is carefully edited to avoid having any narrative flab.
Mr. Holmes, as indicated before, lays on the melodrama plot beats a bit heavy in its third act, but the performances of its cast help compensate for that and lend the film more dramatic heft than it might’ve had otherwise. (Sir) Ian McKellen delivers yet another strong performance, playing an elderly Sherlock Holmes who is struggling to reconcile the man he was with the person that everyone believes him to be (thanks to Watson’s stories), yet still possesses enough of his wits and quirks to make him feel like ‘the real Sherlock’. Milo Parker as Roger is something of a young Sherlock-wannabe and feels more like a plot device than fully realized character, but Laura Linney as Roger’s uneducated, working-class mother and Holmes’ housekeeper brings more emotional weight to her role in the story.
Hattie Morahan delivers a fine performance as a quietly heartbroken Ann Kelmot, though like Roger she’s more of a device used to explore McKellen’s Mr. Holmes than anything else. The same goes for Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine) as Mr. Umezaki, the fellow who assists Holmes on his quest to find prickly ash, but ultimately has ulterior (and more personal) reasons for assisting the ninety-something Sherlock. These characters serve their purpose well enough in the Mr. Holmes narrative, as do other supporting players like Frances de la Tour (the Harry Potter series) and Roger Allam (The Book Thief), in their brief appearances. It’s Sherlock who’s the most fascinating character here, though, which is why the film never lets anyone else linger in the spotlight for too long.
At the end of the day, Mr. Holmes is a solid (if unremarkable) period drama that is anchored by a great Ian McKellen performance as an old Sherlock Holmes. The film unfolds as an intelligent character study set against a historic backdrop, but even with Sherlock as its protagonist Condon’s film is unlikely to have crossover appeal to those outside the usual crowd that enjoys period genre fare. However, if you usually enjoy the genre – and/or are interested in seeing a big screen take on the Holmes character that is genuinely unlike any other that’s been released in recent years – then Mr. Holmes is certainly worthy of a recommendation.
Mr. Holmes in now playing in select U.S. theaters. It is 104 minutes long and is Rated PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking.
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