★ ★ ★
“I must finish with you before I die,” Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) says to a faded picture of a young woman early on in Bill Condon’s low-key but satisfying Mr. Holmes, in which the great consulting detective, now 93, struggles to recall his final case from 35 years earlier — a case that led him to a self-imposed exile at a farmhouse on the coast of Dover, England, where, in 1947, he tends to his own apiary. Sadly, his efforts to remember the details of the mystery are made more difficult due to his increasing dementia; for the great Holmes, a faulty memory — not death — is the greatest fear of all.
In an effort to regain his mental acumen, Holmes travels to Japan and meets with a man (Hiroyuki Sanada) with whom he has been corresponding, who has informed him of a substance called “prickly ash” that supposedly wards off dementia. Their visit to the ruins of Hiroshima, where the ash is located, roots the story in harsh reality. Unfortunately, this aspect of the drama, which plays a pivotal part later on, is the least interesting and least developed of the film’s three major story lines. The movie continually jumps back and forth between three different time periods: the present day of 1947, when Holmes is acting as something of a father figure to Roger (Milo Parker), the 10-year-old son of his widowed housekeeper (the always dependable Laura Linney); his journey to Japan; and a past case involving a distraught husband (Patrick Kennedy) who fears his wife (Hattie Morahan) is afflicted with a “dangerous melancholy” after two devastating miscarriages. Adding to the man’s worries is the fact that his wife has taken up playing a glass harp, rumored to be used in occult practices to contact the dead.
This case, which Holmes is keen to recall, was originally written by his trusted colleague Dr. John Watson. But to Holmes’ dismay, Watson often embellished their adventures and turned them into “penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style.” We learn that Holmes never wore a deerstalker cap or smoked a pipe, and that Watson crafted a fictionalized, happy ending to the tale he is now focused on. What awful act caused Holmes to retire and retreat into seclusion?
He eventually solves the puzzle, but that central mystery, as interesting as it is, isn’t the story’s strongest point. The tender relationship between the gruff Holmes and the curious Roger is instead the film’s touchstone. It’s Roger, with his youthful sense of wonder, who encourages him not to give up on the case. He becomes a sort of Sherlock Jr., much to Holmes’ delight.
Sherlock Holmes has, of course, been portrayed on the small and big screens by dozens of actors, from Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr. to Benedict Cumberbatch. Each of them made an indelible mark as Holmes, and now Ian McKellen joins that hallowed list. Simply put, he is peerless, and the privilege of watching him work is alone worth the price of admission. It should be noted that Mr. Holmes is McKellen’s second teaming with director Bill Condon. Their first film, Gods and Monsters (which won Condon a screenwriting Oscar and netted McKellen a Best Actor nomination), also dealt with the effects of aging as it recounted the later years of director James Whale, famous for helming Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein.
Mr. Holmes, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, is by no means a rousing adventure or a complex mystery. There isn’t even a murder to solve. But it is a thoughtful treatise on aging and a meditation on the power of storytelling itself. It’s a solid character study full of rich details and finely tuned performances. And it’s a welcome return to the big screen for one of fiction’s most enduring and cherished characters.