Genius in decline: My review of Mr. Holmes

B+ Drama

  • Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, from the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, and the character created by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Directed by Bill Condon

Anyone who loves fiction’s most famous detective knows that Sherlock Holmes eventually retired from detective work and moved to Sussex, where he took up beekeeping. And that’s where this story, set in 1947, mostly takes place. Set long after Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his last story, the movie deals with a Holmes whose famous mental facilities are sliding into senility.

In other words, this film shows us a Sherlock Holmes we haven’t seen before—aged, walking with a cane, and more interested in bees than crime. For anyone who loves the original stories and the many adaptations, it’s movie not to be missed. For everyone else, it’s merely a very enjoyable movie that entertains not through action, comedy, or special effects, but by providing us with interesting characters slightly larger than life.

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Ian McKellen plays this Holmes as a very old man. In flashbacks, he plays a younger Holmes, but still older than we’re used to seeing him. In the film’s main story, he’s in a race against time. He always objected to the way Watson had romanticized their cases, turning them into adventure stories. The stories made him a celebrity, which he finds annoying and occasionally comical. Now Holmes wants to write the true story of his last case, correcting the record in at least this one situation. But he’s worried that his mind will fade before he’s finished.

He doesn’t live by himself. He has a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and she has a young son (Milo Parker). Remember that this is 1947; World War II left a lot of widows and fatherless children. Of course the boy clings to the one man in the house, even if it’s the cold and remote Sherlock. But the boy wants to learn beekeeping, and Holmes can’t help but react positively to that. They bond, of course.

But there are other things going on in Holmes’ life. He travels to Japan hoping to find an herb that will preserve his mental powers for a little longer. The bees are strangely dying off. And the housekeeper wants to take her son and move on to a hotel job where she isn’t dependent on one eccentric client. And yes, Holmes gets a moment to do "that think you do" where he looks at a person and deduces what only he can fathom.

This is one of those well-acted, well-directed, well-photographed films that come out of England on a regular basis. Every actor is spot on. McKellen’s makeup is a wonder, and not only in the aging. Even in the flashbacks, his nose and cheekbones offer a vague suggestion of the original Sidney Paget drawings, while allowing McKellen’s own wonderful face to shine through. But the makeup had one strange effect on me. Every so often, he look like John Gielgud.

For Holmes fans, and I’m one of them, this is a wonderful gift. For everyone else, it’s still an enjoyable day at the movies.