Having been out of the consulting detective business for 30 years, a 93-year old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) fills his days at a home in the English countryside tending his beehives. His mental faculties are beginning to leave him and he is desperate to find a way to reverse his decline. A letter from a Japanese fan of his book on royal jelly begins a correspondence between Holmes and Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada). Umezaki tells Holmes about a plant in Japan that is supposed to possess restorative powers for the mind and circulation, leading the detective to travel to the land of the rising sun. After returning from that trip with a sample of the prickly ash plant, Holmes begins using a concoction made from it to aid his memory. Holmes, who was never pleased with his depiction in Dr. Watson’s writings, is desperate to remember the details of his final case so he may set the record straight. Holmes housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker), live with him. Mrs. Munro is a simple, hardworking woman that doesn’t have much need or time for hobbies. Roger is filled with curiosity and, when he’s done with his chores, enjoys spending time with Holmes, learning about the bees and helping him when he can. Holmes, who can be impatient, enjoys spending time with and answering questions from Roger. Holmes gives Roger pages from the story of his last case as Holmes finishes them; but he’s having more and more trouble recalling the details. Holmes knows there’s something about the case that drove him into retirement and longs to discover what he did wrong. He has fond memories of the subject of his investigation, Mrs. Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), but also feels sadness and regret. Holmes is anxious to remember all he can of the case before his mind is completely gone and his time on Earth is over.
Don’t confuse “Mr. Holmes” with the Robert Downey, Jr. portrayal of the consulting detective as they are different as night and day. Where Downey’s Sherlock is quick repartee and action, Sir Ian McKellen’s Holmes is quiet, reserved and more than a bit sad. This Sherlock Holmes is reflective and knows his days are dwindling down to a precious few. At times, Holmes is pitiful and lost in the wilderness of dementia; however, there are moments when the old Sherlock manages to break through and impress those around him with his powers of deduction.
Jumping back and forth in time and from Japan to England, “Mr. Holmes” is a low-key affair that is more about loss, regret and longing than detection. That’s fine as Ian McKellen is brilliant as Sherlock and Milo Parker makes Roger more than just a precocious brat. Their time on screen together is often both magic and melancholy. Holmes sees something of his younger self in Roger: A boy longing to be more than just the product of his surroundings yearning for knowledge and adventure. Holmes also sees the dark side of that desire when Roger lashes out at his mother when she announces she’s accepted a job at a hotel requiring them to move to a different part of the country. Holmes has spent most of his life alone or at least feeling alone and sees a chance that Roger may be headed down this same solitary road. His reaction to Roger’s outburst may be seen as decidedly un-Holmsian but it shows the character as something other than the calculating automaton as he’s frequently portrayed in the books.
McKellen also performs the role of an elderly individual on the verge of their final decline with unusual accuracy and poignancy. Sadly, I have seen what the ravages of time and illness can do with my own father. His decline was at times slow and hardly noticeable and then he seemed to wither and deteriorate right before my eyes. McKellen, who is 76, is himself looking into the last of his days. While he is still vibrant and active he also has the presence of mind to know he has fewer days in front of him than behind. This obviously informed his performance in the scenes where Holmes is his most decrepit. Sherlock Holmes is a superhero of the mind and his arch nemesis is time. A far more dangerous villain than Moriarity and one he can’t outthink no matter how hard he tries. Seeing Holmes at his most vulnerable is heartbreaking on various levels.
As much as I enjoyed “Mr. Holmes” and Sir Ian McKellen’s performance, I had one problem with the movie. As the story winds down an event occurs involving Roger. I won’t give any more detail than that as to not spoil it for those that wish to see the film; however, I will say it feels more than a little manipulative. We already have warm feelings for Holmes, Roger and even Mrs. Munro who is portrayed as militantly ignorant and wants Roger to be that way as well. We learn she feels this way out of fear (again, I won’t spoil it more than that) but the audience views her as cold and mean towards both Roger and Holmes. Things have warmed up a bit in their relationship when this event occurs causing a great deal of fear and anger along with the possible destruction of something Holmes loves like family. It’s all very melodramatic and heart wrenching and seems completely unnecessary. The movie is based on a book called “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin. I’m unsure of how closely the movie follows the book but this final bit of drama feels tacked on for cinematic purposes. Maybe the translation from the page to the screen amplified the emotion or the necessary truncation of events in a book being adapted to a script left out other similarly earthshattering happenings. Whatever the case, it seems out of proportion with the rest of the movie.
“Mr. Holmes” is rated PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking. We see some survivors of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima with severely scarred faces. Depression and suicide are featured in parts of the story. People are shown smoking in a movie theatre and in a few other locations. Foul language isn’t an issue.
Ian McKellen would have made a fantastic Sherlock Holmes in his younger years. His subtly expressive face and biting sarcasm could possibly have been the defining portrayal of Holmes for the 20th and 21st centuries. While he’s burned into the collective consciousness as Gandalf and Magneto, McKellen’s distinctive features should have been equally as recognizable as the occupant of 221B Baker Street. It’s a shame we’ll never get to see his performance in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” or “A Study in Scarlet.” Fortunately, we do get to see him in the title role of “Mr. Holmes” and that is special and memorable in its own way. While I hold no sway in such things, I believe Sir Ian McKellen deserves a nod for Best Actor when the Oscars roll around again.
“Mr. Holmes” is for me nearly perfect.