‘Mr. Holmes’ seems to have so much promise as the opening scenes establish the tale. It’s a layered, meta take on an aging Sherlock Holmes that imagines the great detective as a real person who was spiced up into a fictional character through the writings of his partner, Dr. Watson. Now a dying old man, Holmes looks back upon his life, attempting to pull the man from the legend. Sadly, those early moments are soon watered down into what amounts to little more than handsome fan fiction.
This ancient Mr. Holmes is Ian McKellen, playing the character across three intertwining timelines. The main plot unfolds in 1947 as an ancient Holmes (under a shroud of old-age makeup) retreats to a country estate where his only companions are the help. He has a generic housekeeper played by Laura Linney who cares for his daily needs, and she has a son (Milo Park) who questions the great detective endlessly about his adventures. Between rounds of intergenerational beekeeping, Holmes tells the boy about the case that led to his retirement. Without Watson by his side, Holmes took on what seemed to be a basic “follow the adulterous wife” case that proved to be so much more. That story plays out in pastel flashback with McKellen wearing not a lick of rubbery makeup. At the same time, we also see a recent trip he took to Japan seeking a cure to aging that a mysterious man found in the rubble of Hiroshima. So, plenty of symbolism then.
Ultimately, the movie is about aging and the challenge of reconstructing the memory of a life into something meaningful. The big gimmick of course is that the old fart going through the motions is none other than the world’s greatest detective (well, pre Batman, of course). Clearly he’ll be particularly interested in digging a bit deeper than the usual sad old fuddyduddy.
Clever idea? Sure. Shame about the execution, though. In theory, teaming up Ian McKellen and director Bill Condon for the project should have been an ideal match given that they covered similar ground in the wonderful ‘Gods and Monsters’, which delved deeply into the inner demons of the man who directed the classic ‘Frankenstein’. That movie took a pop icon of sorts and found the human tragedy to tell within the iconography. ‘Mr. Holmes’ serves up similar themes with a literary character known to all, yet with precious little interior life explored.
The trouble here is that everyone is going for maudlin Oscar-baiting to please their Weinstein masters. Any potential for darkness or psychological complexity is washed away in favor of obvious swells of emotion designed to tug on heartstrings without ever troubling the brain. Aside from Holmes, no character offers much in the way of personality or agency. They’re pretty much all there to deliver the lines necessary to reach an irritatingly obvious moral. Laura Linney’s cockney housekeeper is by far the most irritating, a two dimensional (and even that might be a dimension too generous) whining shrew who gives the nauseating precious Park someone to fight against. There are two mysteries at play of course, since this is technically a Sherlock Holmes tale. Both are so easy to solve that you’ll feel insulted that you beat Sherlock to the punch.
Of course, it’s hard to write off the movie entirely. Beyond the pedestrian plotting (adapted from Mitch Cullen’s novel), the cheesy soft-light photography, and parade of irritating supporting characters, Ian McKellen gives a truly wonderful performance. At this point, the actor has honed his craft so finely that he can drum up rich character histories through a throwaway sideways glance and tearful tragedy through a shift of his eyes. Playing a cranky and dying Sherlock Holmes is an ideal role for McKellen, and he treats it with a level craft, care and respect that rises far above anything surrounding him. Simply seeing McKellen in the role almost justifies the whole tediously manipulative endeavor, but not quite. He deserved a better film than this, and quite frankly, so did Mr. Holmes.