From its opening moments, when the BBC Films logo fades in and the gentle classical violins strike up, you’re pretty sure what you’re going to get with “Mr. Holmes.” You already know it stars Ian McKellen and Laura Linney, you already know it’s about an aging, doddery Sherlock Holmes, and you already know it’s directed by Bill Condon, who’s probably anxious to turn in a few low-key little keep-your-head-down numbers having blotted his creative copybook with “The Fifth Estate” and with stooping to the ‘Twilight‘ franchise. It will be tasteful, respectful, with an immaculate sense of period, and dull as an old boot. How nice, then, to discover that you’re quite a way off base. Because while it’s hardly urgent or experimental filmmaking, “Mr. Holmes” is surprisingly satisfying, with more flourishes in terms of its structure of interlinked stories from several time periods than you might expect. In fact, it gently subverts expectations even as it surpasses them, to deliver a thoughtful and moving study of age and memory, fiction and reality, fame and privacy, and quite a lot about bees.
Far more reminiscent of his last collaboration with McKellen, “Gods and Monsters,” than anything he’s done since, it seems Condon has an affinity for stories of brilliant men battling encroaching irrelevance and loss of faculty, especially when those men are played by McKellen. Here, though, the 75 year-old McKellen plays Holmes at 93, as per the source novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin, with an impressive lack of sentimentality or soft-soaping in his performance. This Holmes is fragile, irascible, his mind wanders, his breaths come labored through an often slack jaw — this is no romantic view of the final act in life. But the un-self-pitying way the character is delivered means that small dismaying moments, like when we realize Holmes has taken to writing names on his cuffs as an aide-memoire, cut unexpectedly deep.
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Long retired to an isolated cottage near the sea, famous detective Sherlock Holmes, whose best friend and chronicler Dr. John Watson died some years before, lives alone, save for his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker). Appalled by his declining mental facilities and determined to set the record straight on his final case, he turns to royal jelly from the bees he keeps to revive his ailing memory, and when that doesn’t work, he goes all the way to Japan in search of Prickly Ash, which he believes has restorative powers. In the meantime, he begins to bond with young Roger through the writing of his story (he constantly complains about the fictional version of himself that Watson created), but the crux of it all is that he cannot actually remember how his final case went — he just knows it involved a beautiful woman and a glass harmonica and an outcome so bad that he gave up detective work forever to tend bees in this lonely house. And so there are several mysteries unfolding in parallel in different time periods: who was the woman and what happened back then; who exactly is Mr Holmes’ Japanese contact Mr. Umezaki (Hiryuki Sanada); and what is killing off his bees?
None of these strands by itself would be enough to really scratch the mystery itch, but how they work together in concert and in contrast to each other, is part of the surprising grace of the film. The beautiful woman, played in the flashbacks by Hattie Morahan with a lovely, ghostly sadness, has her story revealed to us and to Holmes in fits and starts of memory, and the evocation of these often random moments, when rusty old synapses fire suddenly, is convincing and well-crafted. Probably the least successful strand is the Japanese one, but even there we get some borrowed interest as it brings Holmes to a blackened and scorched Hiroshima in search of his miraculous plant. And then there’s the domestic puzzle of the bees, which is actually where “Mr. Holmes” really works best.
When we’re back in the “present day” of 1947, we’re mostly in the house with Holmes, Mrs. Munro, and Roger. This story hardly reinvents the old man/young kid relationship wheel — Holmes is crotchety but ultimately won over by the preternaturally bright Roger, and Roger begins to idolize the famous man in whose house he lives. But aided by the great performances from McKellen and excellent newcomer Parker, other notes creep in to make this much more than a Werthers Originals commercial. As Roger grows closer to Holmes, he begins to disengage from his pragmatic, no-nonsense mother, even taking on some of Holmes’ intellectual snobbery, lashing out at her at one point for hardly being able to read. In those moments, Linney’s performance is casually heartbreaking — for all that the “cursed with genius” trope lives large in the canon of Sherlock Holmes fiction, she is the woman cursed to live with those cursed with genius, and it’s no picnic either.
Condon is on fine form here (as is composer Carter Burwell and DP Tobias A. Schliessler) — this is a twilight story rather than a ‘Twilight’ story — and he keeps everything woven together and moving along at a fluid, even pace throughout, before building to an ending that is understated to the point of being anticlimactic, and yet makes enormous, comforting sense. Considering sympathetically what a person defined by his mind might do when that mind starts to fail him, and how companionship, understanding, and practical kindness, might, in the end, be commodities much more valuable than intelligence,”Mr. Holmes” is not so much the story of Holmes’ last case, as the story of his last choice: whether to go gentle, or whether to rage against the dying of the light. [B+]