Sherlock Holmes is a very popular figure in contemporary pop culture. There are the Robert Downey Jr. films and two TV series based on the character; one set in modern-day London (the BBC series) and one set in modern-day New York City (the CBS show). The Fox series House reimagined Sherlock Holmes as a medical doctor solving puzzling medical cases. Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes tells a story of a much older Sherlock, one we are unaccustomed to seeing. It is a clever re-imagining of a famous fictional character, presenting a story that strips away much of the artifice and mythos of the character and focus more on a man finding his humanity late in life.
Set a short time after the second World War, Sherlock (Ian McKellen) is 93, retired, and living in Sussex with a housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) on a small property within walking distance of the ocean. The last time he was in London, to take care of the possessions of his recently deceased brother, Mycroft, Mr. Holmes saw a movie adaptation of the last book Dr. Watson wrote about their work together and it disturbed him for several reasons, not the least of which was that he could no longer remember the particulars of the case from 35 years ago that sent him into retirement, a self-imposed exile of sorts. He therefore sets out to write his own straightforward account of what became his last case, not the glorified, fictional tale on which Dr. Watson wrote with his various liberties and embellishments (the canonical hat and the pipe being two minor ones).
His mind and his body are no what they once were, and he seeks herbal remedies to stimulate his mind and stave off senility, traveling, as we see in flashbacks, to Japan in search of a plant known as Prickly Ash, in addition to the Royal Jelly he is already using, a honey bee secretion from the bees that he maintains on his property. One of the few faults I have with this film is the generally lazy way that these herbal remedies are employed in jogging his memory; in one scene after sipping a tea with the Prickly Ash mixed in, new details are almost instantaneously and vividly brought to his mind. Thankfully, the story does not treat these as miraculous wonders for very long, with Mr. Holmes coming to the eventual realization that it is the people around him and not the plants he is grinding up, that are stimulating his mind for the first time in a long time.
His search in Japan is aided by Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), a professed fan of Mr. Holmes’ work who also has a tangential connection to Holmes’ past. While Mr. Holmes tries to recount his last case, also seen in flashback in snippets, he develops a friendly bond with Roger, at times to the consternation of his mother, as Holmes teaches Roger about beekeeping, how to look for clues about people, and becomes a paternal influence in his life.
The story is compelling drama, focused on the everyday life of an old man who strikes up a friendship with a young boy. It’s not a thriller and the case he is attempting to recall is not a whodunit. The case itself concerns a Mr. Thomas Klenot (Patrick Kennedy) who believes something is amiss with his wife Ann (Hattie Morahan), having suffered through two miscarriages, being despondent, and believing her to be influenced by the dark, bewitching forces of a musical instructor she is seeing who just also happens to be a foreigner. Mr. Holmes quickly moves beyond the supernatural suspicions and of the husband in his investigation, always being a man grounded in logic and reason.
Learning to be less beholden to logic and reason ends up being the heart of the story. He sees no room in his life for fiction, part of the reason he intends to write this true accounting. His interactions with Roger and his recalling of his last case bring about a certain degree of change in him, producing a level of humanity and graciousness toward others that he had perhaps neglected or rejected in the past as niceties were too fictional and thus trivial for him. By the end of the film, he recognizes the need for a little fiction in life, some creativity, and shows a kindness to a character to whom he had previously treated harshly, finally realizing that sometimes the blunt truth of what we have deduced is not what people need to hear.
This is a more circumspect Sherlock Holmes at the end of his life. He is a man who has regrets. Holmes has always been portrayed as a prickly type of personality, a genius but short on interpersonal manners. He had a feisty relationship with his older housemaid Mrs. Hudson. I think he treats Mrs. Munro in a similar manner, knowingly or not, with far less agreeable results. While he forms a bond with Roger, he also sees how his relationship with Roger is impacting Roger’s relationship with his mother, as there is growing resentment between the two; he toward her for looking for another job and she toward him for casting her aside for this older man who is befriending him, educating him and providing for him in ways that she can’t as a barely-schooled, widowed single mother.
McKellen is outstanding in this film. He portrays Sherlock Holmes with a frailty and uncertainty that we’re not used to seeing in the character. Old age has sapped much of his strength and he is struggling to retain his mind. At one point, a doctor visits and gives him a journal with instructions to color in a circle on each day for every time he can’t remember a name. Later, after a health scare, the doctor finds the pages increasingly filled with dots of various sizes. McKellen’s Holmes is a Holmes who is unfamiliar to us, and is a welcome change from the Sherlocks of recent TV and screen that land somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I fully expect and hope that McKellen’s name is remembered when Oscar nominations roll around, because it is worthy of a nomination; one of the best performances I’ve seen so far this year.
Mr. Holmes, while portraying a significantly older version of Sherlock Holmes than we’ve ever seen on-screen, nevertheless injects new life into the timeless fictional character, giving him emotional and human depth that is rarely seen in the character. It’s a solid cast, the story is crafted well, and the central performance given by McKellen is praiseworthy. It’s odd that the film was given a mid-summer release as it is the type of film I would typically expect to see in theaters in the Fall, closer to awards season.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars