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Review: Mr. Holmes (2015)

Mr. Holmes (2015)

Directed by: Bill Condon

Premise: An elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) struggles with senility and attempts to remember the circumstances of his last case.

What Works: Sherlock Holmes is the single most frequently dramatized fictional character in all of cinema and in just the past few years there have been several new versions of the detective including the Guy Ritchie films starring Robert Downey Jr., the BBC program starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and the CBS television series starring Jonny Lee Miller. Although each of these programs presents a uniquely different take on the character, the film Mr. Holmes takes the detective in a radically different direction and it is quite possibly one of the best and certainly one of the most interesting incarnations of the character. Sherlock Holmes is a man who lives the life of the mind. He is defined by his mental acuity and his ability to notice and retain details. In this movie Holmes struggles to hold onto those qualities and the movie is about the link between memory and identity. In this film, Sherlock Holmes is an actual person and his associate Dr. Watson had written fictionalized tales about their many cases together. Within the conceit of this story, the actual Holmes is a bit different from the fictional character that Watson has created and he is annoyed by the way the facts have been distorted in the name of storytelling. Now in the late period of his life, Holmes lives in the country where he spends his days raising a bee colony and attempting to recollect the details of his last case, which ended tragically and drove him into retirement. Mr. Holmes is a meditation on mortality and aging; the film has a very effective tone of melancholy. As Holmes struggles with his memory he also encounters the horrors of the modern world and there is a sharp contrast between this aging Victorian character and the dawn of the nuclear age. The movie is primarily a character study of a man trying to remember who he is and the organization of the story reflects that struggle. The narrative leaps all over the timeline of events, but the filmmakers handle the nonlinear storytelling very well and it is always clear when and where any given scene takes place. Holmes is played by Ian McKellen who is terrific in the part. Although he has the intelligence and droll humor that have characterized Holmes in virtually every version, those qualities are matched by frailty and vulnerability that make him a more accessible character and that is due to McKellen’s performance. Holmes is cared for by a housekeeper and her son played by Laura Linney and Milo Parker and they contribute a lot to the picture. The relationship between Holmes and the boy gives the movie a pleasant interpersonal subplot that humanizes both him and the movie.

What Doesn’t: The one story element of Mr. Holmes that is out of place is the detective’s journey to post-war Japan. Holmes is in search of a miracle cure that will stave off his senility and he travels to Japan for a special herb. It’s revealed that he had known the father of his Japanese contact many decades earlier and their meeting had repercussions on the son. The events in this sequence are removed from the rest of the story. It’s clear that the younger man is angry with Holmes but how the detective knew the father, or if they knew each other at all, is unclear. However, this subplot does play into the finale of the film, which justifies its inclusion. As an entry in the canon of Sherlock Holmes and coming alongside the more action-oriented versions of this character, some viewers may feel misled. Mr. Holmes is as far from the kinetic thrills of Guy Ritche’s movies as it could be. That’s exactly what makes this movie special but those who come looking for an equivalent adventure or a classic detective story aren’t going to find it here.

Bottom Line: Mr. Holmes is a low key but beautifully made movie that repurposes a classic character for a story that is both intellectually and emotionally engaging. The movie isn’t flashy but it has tremendous insight and intelligence and one of Ian McKellen’s finest performances.  

Episode: #555 (August 16, 2015)