AI Film/BBC Films/FilmNation Entertainment/Archer Gray productions/See-Saw Films/Miramax/Roadside Attractions
Directed by Bill Condon
Produced by Anne Carey/Iain Canning/Emile Sherman
Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher
Based on “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin
Sherlock Holmes is a character that reminds me of Batman in a lot of ways and not just because they’re both extraordinary detectives. Like Batman, Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed in movies and on television in variety of settings and styles. There have been comedy versions of Holmes; my favorite being 1988’s “Without A Clue” in which it’s actually Dr. Watson (played by Ben Kingsley) who is a genius detective and hires a bumbling, alcoholic actor (Michael Caine) to play the role of Sherlock Holmes in public. Contemporary versions set in modern day starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller. The animated series “Sherlock Holmes In The 22nd Century” where Holmes is brought back to life via cellular regeneration and resumes his career aided by a robot Dr. Watson and Inspector Beth Lestrade of New Scotland Yard. And there’s what I like to call the “Lethal Weapon” version of Sherlock Homes which stars Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson. It’s a version that’s less concerned with straight-up deduction and more with martial arts, gunplay and pyrotechnics.
And that’s only a very few of the many ways Sherlock Holmes has been interpreted in film. But to my knowledge, MR. HOLMES is the only movie which deals with and portrays Holmes as an old man suffering from senility and having a hard time dealing with losing his most precious and valued asset: his intellect.
At the age of 93 in 1947 Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) has long since retired to Sussex to become a beekeeper. Besides his beloved bees, his only companions are his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her precocious son, Roger (Milo Parker). Due to his deteriorating health and mental condition Holmes has begrudgingly engaged the woman’s services but she knows that what he actually needs is a full-time nurse and is making arraignments to take a position elsewhere.
This isn’t welcomed by Roger who takes a liking to the old man. And in return, Holmes, impressed by the young man’s intelligence and curiosity, teaches him how to take care of the bees. Holmes is not taking very well to getting old. He is acutely aware that one thing that has defined him his entire life is going away and he has nothing to replace it with. He cannot even remember exactly why he retired but he does have tantalizing memories of his last case and instinctively feels that he must have done something terribly wrong during that case. Watson did write an account of that case but Holmes was never happy with that version and Holmes himself must take up pen to write the story of his last case and hopefully piece together what actually happened. He’s assisted in this by young Roger who becomes a new Watson during this final investigation of Sherlock Holmes.
We get to see Ian McKellen as the Holmes of that last case in flashbacks and it’s the Holmes we all know and love with a mind that makes a barber’s razor look dull. And maybe it’s just me but he looks and sounds like a dead ringer for the late Sir John Gielgud in some of those flashback scenes. Holmes is retained by a man names Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) who believes that his wife (Hattie Morahan) has become mentally unbalanced after suffering two miscarriages and believes she is communicating with the spirits of her miscarried children. Kelton thinks his wife has fallen under the influence of a fake medium and wants Holmes to confirm his fears.
We also get a second series of flashbacks to a trip Holmes has just come back from to Japan to meet an admirer of his named Matsuda Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) who helps Holmes obtain a prickly ash plant that Holmes thinks will help cure his ailing memory. But that isn’t Umezaki’s only reason for wanting to meet Holmes. His father disappeared at around the same time of the Kelmot case and the only clue Umezaki has as to why his father disappeared is a note he wrote to his son placed inside a collected volume of Sherlock Holmes stories and sent to Umezaki when he was a boy.
Is that long ago disappearance of Umezaki connected with the Kelmot case? Why did Dr.Watson hide a perfumed leather woman’s glove inside a secret compartment of his desk? These and other questions are answered but not in the way I expected and it was both surprising and remarkably poignant when the mysteries are at last all solved.
Ian McKellen does a magnificent job as Sherlock Holmes. He’s lost much of his towering arrogance as he is now unsure of his mental state. But he is still recognizably Holmes as in scenes where Roger challenges him to deduce where his mother has been all day and in a tense moment where Holmes has to quickly put together the correct sequence of events of how a terrible accident took place before his beloved bees are destroyed.
Milo Parker holds his own well in his scenes with McKellen and there is something overwhelmingly touching and affectionate as we watch a real and genuine friendship develop between a man at the end of his life and a boy just starting out on his. Laura Linney is the real surprise here as my wife and I didn’t even realize it was her playing Mrs. Munro until we saw her name in the end credits, that’s how well she disappears into her character. The production values, costuming and set designs are rich enough that you’ll swear you’re looking at a Mechant Ivory production, that’s how good they are.
If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes then my all means, go and see MR. HOLMES. It’s a solidly elegant character study as well as an engaging mystery. And I feel it’s quite fitting that for his final case Sherlock Holmes must investigate and at last solve what has always been a total mystery to him; the nature of his own humanity.