by Philip Price
There have been countless iterations of Sherlock Holmes over the years, but prior to this film’s release I'd not heard of Mitch Cullins interpretation of the world's greatest detective. At first glance, “Mr. Holmes” seems like one of those ideas that is better left as an idea rather than the likely failure to meet expectations result that would come from trying to make it a reality. What might actually be so fascinating about an older detective who can hardly remember his glory days let alone how he made his reputation? The possibilities are certainly intriguing, but the execution could be questionable given what one takes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works to inform the state of an elderly Holmes. Having not read Cullins book on which this is based, I don't know how much credit to give director Bill Condon, but by not simply telling another story revolving around a mystery the film starts off on the right foot. As the film plays out we see a mystery element incorporated in the form of flashbacks to Holmes' final case with which he is having trouble completely recalling. These flashbacks are more or less used to both create reason for why Holmes chose the course he did for his later years while also reminding him of a throughline theme by which he intended to live out the rest of his years. Solving the mystery of his forgotten case also incorporates the only way Holmes truly knows how to live and how to deal with getting older and facing death. By both incorporating these aspects, but keeping the film more focused on the man rather than the mystery the film seems to capture the only possibility that could make this type of story appealing without being completely depressing. There are themes of regret throughout that I can only imagine will be more resonant with a second viewing, but on a first pass still strike one as heartbreakingly honest. I say this because “Mr. Holmes” is as much about preserving the thoughts and correct legacy of one's life as it is making amends for the mistakes in one's life by passing on what they've learned to a younger generation so that they may not encounter the same regrets. The strong conveyance of these ideas are made largely possible through two wonderful lead performances in Ian McKellen and newcomer Milo Parker.
We begin in 1947 as a nearly 93-year old Holmes has long since retired and is now living in a Sussex village with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her auspicious son, Roger (Parker). Holmes has just returned from a trip to Japan, Hiroshima more specifically, in an attempt to acquire a specific plant from which he hopes to cultivate a jelly that will improve his memory. This desire springs not necessarily from extending his sanity or life as long as he possibly can, but more out of a need to right the misconceptions of what his longtime partner, Watson, made of him. Watson's accounts of Holmes are what made him a household name and are what have only been further exaggerated through the years whether it be in new stories or movie adaptations. The elder Holmes that our film focuses on though is bent on correcting Watson's incorrect account of his final case, the one where something must have occurred to make him retire to a life of solitude. While the Japanese jelly is proving insufficient in its healing powers, Holmes takes a liking to the young and inquisitive Roger who continues to question the elder detective about how true the stories told of him actually are. Holmes admits to Roger that he is attempting to right Watson's elaborated stories by writing one of his own, but is having trouble remembering all of the details. Though Mrs. Munro is wary of the elder Holmes and his bee-keeping habits, she allows her son to keep him company and thus they form a reciprocal relationship where Roger learns the tricks of Sherlock's trade and Roger's insistent questioning helps Holmes to better recall his confrontation with an angry husband and the secret bond he formed with that man's beautiful but unstable wife.
While “Mr. Holmes” isn't entirely accessible to everyone, what it is is that of a leisurely paced, but consistently insightful look into the realms of reflection and perspective. Once I was able to get past the possibility of the premise being more risky than rewarding I was able to see the approach to Holmes as that of a normal human in that we all get old with the added caveat of having a knack for picking up clues. What this caveat in an otherwise straightforward examination of dealing with one's own mortality brings to the table though are the realizations and repercussions of always looking at situations through pure logic and not necessarily considering the human condition. Holmes doesn't take these experiences with any seeming human emotion, but rather deduces their meaning for the more rational reasons. The one human condition Holmes was never quite able to grasp though, was of course love. And so, as Holmes comes to terms with the realization he truly is near the end of his days, it hits even harder that he has nary a soul to share them with. Holmes, up until this point, has seemed to be able to convince himself that this somewhat cowardice of avoiding any real human relationship is something of a sacrifice for his profession, but as the film builds its case for what forced Holmes into retirement we realize this isn't the first time he's realized he can't solve everything. As we go back and forth between the Alzheimer's-ridden Holmes and that of his last case some thirty years prior the film milks it's methodical pace to build its story to a point of crisis we're both intrigued by and interested in. Not to spoil the crisis, but an observation around it would be the attention to the idea of the preciousness of childhood and children in general. These themes, present in both the past and current narrative strands, only reinforce to Holmes the wonder of how some can be gone long before their time while he's long outlived his.
Making all of this more impactful and therefore the film altogether more of a deeper concentration than the pacing might initially suggest is the performance of McKellen. As the titular protagonist, McKellen is loose and unexpectedly more willing in his older age. McKellen's 93-year old version of Holmes is more the introspective type, but only because he has seemingly been forced to be. For, as we see in the flashbacks, McKellen plays the sixty year-old Holmes with a larger air of confidence and an assured nature that leads him to feeling somewhat exceptional if not alone. Through the mirror of both versions that McKellen presents we are given the qualms Holmes has with the experiences of the human condition. Human nature doesn't typically comprehend logic while Holmes is one to only grasp the facts of a case, never picking up on the emotional cues. It is in the mystery the film presents around the case with the unstable wife that Holmes realizes how alone he actually is and likely always will be. This presents a need to feel understood. Enter Parker's Roger and a dynamic that gives us an engaging relationship and an emotional core to the film. I haven't seen the young Parker in anything prior to Mr. Holmes (though he'll be in Tim Burton's Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children next year, of which I just finished reading a few months ago), but if this is any indication of the work he might do should he continue to grow in this profession, we're certainly in for good things. A scene exemplifying the films major theme of regret in which Roger yells at his mother is the best example of what the talented cast (including Linney) brings to this potential-filled material. Hiroyuki Sanada also has a rather critical supporting role that eventually allows Holmes the opportunity to do what he wasn't once keen enough to understand. Not only does this opportunity grant Sanada's character a peace of mind he's never been privy to before, but also helps McKellen's Holmes to finally move on instead of constantly feeling responsible to fix things.