Sherlock Holmes faces his most difficult challenge yet in Bill Condon’s gently radical “Mr. Holmes,” in which the much-loved detective must detangle latent hang-ups regarding an unsolved case from his younger years at 221B Baker Street. Trouble is, Holmes, now aged 93, is suffering the fears and anxieties that come with Alzheimer’s disease, and so — with the help of a young protégé — must do all he can to find a sense of completion in this late period of his life.
Adapted from Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel, “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” Condon’s latest feature reunites the director with the ever-dependable Ian McKellen, with whom he first teamed up on the 1998 James Whale biopic “Gods and Monsters.” McKellen takes to the role with effortless gravitas and emotional versatility in the wake of more pugnacious big-screen endeavors from Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch’s hipper incarnation in the BBC television series “Sherlock.”
The respectfully titled “Mr. Holmes” pivots around three primary plot strands: in 1947 provincial England, the retired detective lives with his maid Mrs. Munro (a curiously cast Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker), a young lad who shares Holmes’s enthusiasm for bees. It’s in bees’ special secretion, called royal jelly, that Holmes has been particularly interested — made by the worker bees for the queen, it helps with arthritis as well as senility — and the canny sleuth recalls in flashback how he traveled to Hiroshima in search of a Japanese equivalent known as prickly ash.
Roger, an inquisitive lad, begins to read an unfinished manuscript by Holmes — who assures his young disciple that “fiction is worthless” and that he’s interested solely in facts. The manuscript relates to Holmes’ final investigation, previously fictionalized and published by his old pal Watson — whose written tales have become things of legend. Said investigation entailed Holmes being enlisted by one Mr. Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) to study his estranged wife Ann (Hattie Morahan), who spends her days wandering alone mourning their stillborn children. These sequences have more than a shade of “Vertigo” about them.
Like the way in which McKellen masterfully conveys a sense of physical and mental ailment in the 1947 segments, “Mr. Holmes” is on first appearance a decidedly plodding affair, prodding at deeper reveals and priming us as to what these might be with a certain predictability — though in an age of flashier adaptations of Conan Doyle’s classic literary character, Condon’s film might be appreciated as a refreshingly old-fashioned outing, even with its own variations on the character in mind.
These variations, lifted from the film’s source novel, all relate back to the notion that Holmes is a real person who has lived through various artistic renderings. The film includes sly jabs at the caricature Holmes himself became as a fictional character: when Japanese client Tamiki Uzemaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) says that his mother is disappointed that he isn’t wearing his famous deerstalker hat, Holmes remarks, “That was an embellishment of the illustrator.” Similarly, when offered a pipe, he says he prefers cigars. One permanent fixture that comes intact is Holmes’ magnifying glass — though, perhaps tellingly, even this is thrown to the floor at one point.
While such demystifying currents recall the similarly genteel, slickly-made “Finding Neverland,” the reliance upon flashbacks reminds one of “Iris,” Richard Eyre’s courteous overview of Iris Murdoch’s final days — though while Judi Dench in that film had Kate Winslet to play a younger version of the character, here McKellen must show a man at multiple stages of elderliness. He does so with much conviction — particularly touching here are those scenes in which he demonstrates a real vulnerability (including great on-screen chemistry with his doctor, played by criminally underused Roger Allam). It’s in these same moments that “Mr. Holmes” stands apart from earlier versions that propagate the character as the sui generis of invincible intellectuals.
This being Holmes, a fair deal of narrative symmetry is involved, and the narrative in its latter stages has that belated two-pronged risk of becoming compelling and overly explanatory at once. Beyond these wrap-ups, though, the film’s main problem is that, for all its playful digs at the untruth of fictions, “Mr. Holmes” barely convinces with its own: never mind the fact that Roger doesn’t appear to have a school to go to, or that the provincial setting places the story at a convenient remove from the class tensions of post-war London.
There’s also a curiously conservative thread involving divisions of labor: Sherlock tells Roger that worker bees do all the work (“as it should be”), while Linney’s Mrs. Munro, the only character who does physical work in the film, is something of a sourpuss set against the mental prowess of her employer and, in turn, son. But the question of whether this most serialized of literary sleuths should have much interest in less fanciful or inward-looking affairs than an unresolved case or his own mortality is better left to another project. Condon’s, in the meantime, puts in the groundwork.
“Mr. Holmes” premiered this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. Roadside Attractions will release it later this year.