With three other major interpretations of the Sherlock Holmes character making their marks within only the past decade, director Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes distinguishes itself immediately – Holmes (Ian McKellen) is 93, retired in the south of England, and the steel trap of his mind has gathered rust. In this country home, housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) waits on Holmes, while her son Roger (Milo Parker) helps the venerable sleuth keep his apiary of bees. But the forgotten details of Holmes’ last case vex him; what led the greatest detective in the world to pack it in?
So the film is structured to fold in the story of Holmes’ mysterious last case (alongside an additional diversion) into the present-day foundation of the elderly Holmes going about his days, trying to remember that final case. At first glance inert, this is a quietly inventive structure; every time Holmes asks himself why he can’t recall the past, it becomes a meta line. As he remembers the plot, it is revealed to the audience. The viewer always knows the plot as much as Sherlock Holmes (not something you can say in other Sherlock stories). This conceit could have gone even further. There’s a bit of a cheat when Holmes “remembers” a shot that’s actually from another character’s point of view. Also, an explicitly nonlinear structure could have fit in to portray degenerative memory very empathetically, but for the sake of clarity I welcome the film’s relative straightforwardness.
The film teams director Condon with star McKellen, a duo who in 1998 made the extraordinary Gods and Monsters, a film with a near-identical premise to Mr. Holmes. A housebound and retired “genius” (living with a housekeeper) is haunted by half-remembered memories of the past, and confides in a young man with unforeseen consequences. In Gods and Monsters McKellen portrayed James Whale, legendary director of the first two Universal Frankenstein movies. Befitting that connection, it is indeed a more twisted and challenging film, but Mr. Holmes is no slouch, efficiently taking on dramatically hefty twists and turns to sometimes devastating results. I bring up the comparison not to bring low one or the other, but because it’s irresistible when a director gives us two “companion pieces”.
The film to an extent lives and dies with McKellen, but the supporting cast here is uniformly great; the sympathetic Linney, the understated Hiroyuki Sanada, the hauntingly broken Hattie Morahan, and most of all the fantastic child performance by Parker buoy Mr. Holmes. I must also praise Carter Burwell’s score. His main theme sounds like a cross between Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, finding a balance between melancholy and determination. And there is poetry in Jeffrey Hatcher’s script and Condon’s direction – observe the early scene wherein Holmes sees an omen of the future and a symbol of the past in turn.
While deliberately slow to start, Mr. Holmes is an effective drama powered past the finish line by a brilliant performance from Ian McKellen. The flashback structure gives the film needed thematic weight, and the cast rounds out a solidly made production. The film is a return to form for Condon (in time for Beauty and the Beast!), after nearly a decade of doldrums. 8/10.