Since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” was published in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has been one of the immortal literary characters along with Tarzan and James Bond. He has been portrayed by many plays, movies and TV series during last 128 year, and we will certainly get more of Holmes as he keeps fascinating many readers around the world.
Based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 book “A Slight Trick of the Mind”, “Mr. Holmes” revolves around the later years of Sherlock Holmes. It is 1947, and Holmes, played by Ian McKellen with graceful dignity, has been retired for nearly thirty years while living quietly at his small residence in Sussex. His dear friend Dr. John Watson and a few other people close to him were all gone now, and the only people around Holmes are his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). While willingly helping Holmes’ beekeeping work, Roger is eager to hear anything exciting or interesting from an old man who was once regarded as the most brilliant detective in the world, and Holmes does have something new to tell because he has wanted to write about his very last case, which was once told through Watson’s fictionalized version.
However, his brain has not been doing well recently as showing the early signs of senile dementia. He tried to slow down this irreversible progress through royal jelly and Japanese prickly ash, but he experiences more lapses while depending more on Mrs. Munro and Roger. He wants to finish his story before it is too late, but he is sometimes at a loss as his increasingly foggy mind tries to grasp the memories of the case which still haunts him even after many years.
As he slowly remembers it bit by bit, the movie goes back to that point in his past through a number of flashback scenes. A young man named Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) visits Holmes’s real residence near to 221B Baker Street, and he says he really needs Holmes for his private problem. After being devastated by the loss of her two children due to miscarriage, his wife Ann (Hattie Morahan) has been obsessed with her glass harmonica lesson, and Kelmot suspects that his wife is somehow being exploited by her glass harmonica lesson teacher. While it looks like an easy case of fraud, Holmes accepts the case anyway, and we see him surreptitiously following after Ann, who does not notice Holmes partially thanks to Watson’s embellished description of Holmes’s appearance in his stories (so don’t expect that famous deerstalker hat and pipe).
Meanwhile, we also get another subplot involved with Holmes’s recent trip to Japan in the aftermath of the World War II. Right after his arrival, Holmes is greeted by Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), and they spend some time together around Hiroshima while Holmes looks for Japanese prickly ash to grow at his home in Sussex. At one point, they drop by a bleak site reflecting the atomic bombing in 1945, and Holmes is particularly impressed by one spiritual ritual he happens to witness.
Shuffling around these three stories, the movie patiently builds up its wistful elegiac tone as the adapted screenplay by Jeffrey Hunter slowly moves toward the point where everything is eventually revealed to us. We learn of how Holmes came to decide his retirement after his last case was closed. We find how Holmes’s trip to Japan turned out to be less simple than it looked at first. And we see how Holmes comes to make a number of decisions at the present point, after managing to look back at all these things which will probably be faded away from him again sooner or later.
As observing the somber, melancholy character drama of “Mr. Holmes”, I was reminded of the director Bill Condon’s 1998 film “Gods and Monsters”, for which he received a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. That movie was a fictional drama about the final days of famous real-life Hollywood director James Whale, who made “Frankenstein” (1931) and “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935). McKellen, who was Oscar-nominated for his performance in that film, was fabulous as an old naughty gay man who forms a strained but poignant relationship with a young, hulking gardener played by Brendan Fraser, and so was late Lynn Redgrave, who was also Oscar-nominated for her supporting turn as Whale’s faithful housekeeper.
However, “Mr. Holmes” feels less interesting compared to “Gods and Monsters”. If you expect anything as curious as the incident of that dog in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”, you will be disappointed to find that there is not much mystery to grab your attention. The scenes in Japan feel a little too redundant, and the part involved with a small problem in Holmes’s beekeeping is too elementary even for Holmes’s fading mind.
Condon places talented performers around McKellen, but most of them are under-utilized. While young actor Milo Parker holds his own place well in his scenes with McKellen, Laura Linney, who was Oscar-nominated for her supporting turn in Condon’s 2004 film “Kinsey”, feels bland compared to Redgrave’s similar but more colorful character in “Gods and Monsters”. Roger Allam briefly appears as Holmes’s concerned doctor, and Hattie Morahan has a good scene with McKellen when their characters come to have a private talk between them.
In case of McKellen, he gives one of his better performances here in this film. While I have some reservation on “Mr. Holmes” due to its several notable weak points, this 76-year-old British actor elegantly carries the movie with wit and poignancy, and “Mr. Holmes” is worthwhile to watch just for his performance. He can do many others things besides Gandalf and Magneto, and I hope we will continue to see more of him for many years.