Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created an inexhaustible source for filmmakers with his seminal character Sherlock Holmes. The cool, cerebral detective appeared in only four novels and 56 short stories, but IMDb shows 267 movie and TV adaptations, and the Guiness Book of World Records has listed Holmes as the “most portrayed movie character,” starting with a 1900 Mutoscope film. Two television shows are currently running, both set in contemporary times: “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role and Martin Freeman as his friend and chronicler Dr. John Watson, which began in 2010 and arguably initiated Cumberbatch’s stardom; and “Elementary,” created in 2012 and set in New York, with Jonny Lee Miller as the sleuth and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson.
The latest entrant in the crowded field is “Mr. Holmes,” based on the 2005 novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” by Mitch Cullin, which finds Holmes in his retirement and expands upon the thin hints left by Conan Doyle: that Holmes moved to a farm upon the South Downs of Sussex and kept bees, writing a book called “Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen.”
The always-interesting Sir Ian McKellen plays Holmes in 1947 at 93, experiencing the forgetfulness of senility, and also in flashbacks to his 60s, when a final case led, it seems, to his abrupt retirement as a consulting detective. He’s heavily made-up in both incarnations, with a W.H. Auden-like mask of wrinkles as the elderly Holmes, and a curiously long nose. (But no deerstalker hat or calabash pipe, made sport of, once again, as the inventions of illustrators. In this version, however, the storied 221-B Baker Street is revealed to be a fake address, to throw off the scent of his admirers — especially the Americans.) Holmes lives with a cranky, distrustful housekeeper (a decidedly de-glamorized, brunette Laura Linney) and her son, Roger (Milo Parker, who looks like the young Freddie Highmore), who lost their husband and father in WW II.
For the Anglophile and those fond of Masterpiece Theater, there are the considerable pleasures of the glorious settings — the picturesque farm, windswept downs, period London and post-World War II Japan, where Holmes travels on a mysterious errand involving prickly ash — and costumes. There’s a wonderful used bookstore with secret passages, Holmes’ study and chemist’s lab, and, of course, the Diogenes Club, where brother Mycroft is briefly glimpsed. (Watson, who parted ways with Holmes when he married, is seen only as a pair of hands in a flashback.) Such British acting stalwarts as Frances de la Tour (as an instructor of the mysterious glass harmonica), Phil Davis (as a police inspector), and Roger Allam (as Holmes’ doctor) are also briefly employed.
Holmes is troubled by his fading memory and failing health, and uses a concoction of prickly ash to forestall his forgetfulness, replacing the royal jelly from his bee hives that he also used. He’s writing a reminiscence of his last case, in order to intrigue the young Roger, and bribe him into helping Holmes tend his bees.
Watching the growing friendship of Holmes and Roger proves more rewarding than the eventual working-out of why a seemingly routine case — a young husband anxious about the mental health of his wife — should have caused Holmes to abandon his career. And the denouement also seems like an afterthought.
But the plot is not the point. There’s real pleasure in watching the assured work of director Bill Condon and McKellen, who last worked together in 1998’s “Gods and Monsters,” also based on a novel, in which McKellen incarnated the aged version of a character, the real-life director of Frankenstein, James Whale. Mr. Holmes will please both the Holmes aficionados and those new to the seemingly inexhaustible study of Holmesiana.