Here is a sum up of my thoughts, read below for a fuller more spoiler-y review:
Sir Ian McKellen gives a spectacular performance jumping between the old, dying, angry, and senile present day Holmes to his cocky younger self. The supporting cast does not disappoint. Milo Parker does a superb job of playing an inquisitive postwar child and the young actor also rises to the daunting task of sharing the screen with McKellen for most of the movie.
The pacing may be too slow for some, yet it is easy to enjoy this intimate film which offers a take on the Holmes character we haven’t seen before. Though it gives plenty of nods to the traditional character- the film does not read like a Holmes story. Fans of traditional Sherlock Holmes stories will either enjoy seeing something new done with their beloved character- but if they go in expecting more of the same they will be disappointed.
“Mr. Holmes” is a beautifully shot well-done narrative. It rests entirely on script and performance- no gimmicks here.
“Mr. Holmes” opens July 17th.
“Mr. Holmes,” begins with Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) in the last years of his life. Beginning in 1947, Holmes is 93, and has long since retired from his detective career to the quiet life on the south coast of England. He spends his time beekeeping and has only his housekeeper (played by Laura Linney) and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker), to keep him company and care for him in his old age.
Holmes needs the care as we learn from his doctor that he should no longer be living alone. He suffers from dementia which we see getting worse throughout the film via McKellen’s masterful performance and with a physical prop– a journal Holmes marks anytime he can’t remember something– the pages become more and more filled with black holes.
The non-linear storytelling of the film speaks to the protagonist’s struggle with memory. It has three main periods which flit in and out of sequence: 1947 which is Holmes’ present, 1917 when his last case occurred, and flashbacks to a recent trip to Japan- which he took at the invitation of a mysterious fan in order to bring back prickly ash which he believed could help fight his illness.
All of these time periods offer their own mysteries, but “Mr. Holmes” largely revolves around his need to tell the facts of the case that forced him to retire 30 years before– even as the details escape his memory.
In the case, which we get small pieces of throughout the movie, a man comes to Holmes about his wife- a woman named Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan). The husband knows something is wrong with her- and asks Holmes’ to follow her and prove she’s been up to something. McKellen portrays the younger Holmes as put together, confident, and loving every aspect of being on the case. Though we eventually see him piece together the facts we know this isn’t the whole story- “I must have done something terribly wrong,” he tells himself and Roger for whom he is writing this last story in the present.
This Holmes deals with memory and myth fiction and truth. In writing down his last case Holmes claims that he wants to set the record straight on the case and also on himself. The man that the late John Watson created in his Holmes novels was never the real deal- he tells a fan that the iconic deerstalker hat and pipe were “embellishments of the illustrator”, and the heroic consulting detective that the boy Roger worships is merely a result of Watson’s imaginative retellings. Fiction, Mr. Holmes contends throughout the film, is useless.
This thought is shown in one of the more fun moments in “Mr. Holmes” when Holmes goes to see a film based on Watson’s version of Kelmot’s case. The fanfare, twists, turns, and overall drama that Holmes loathes in this movie version of his adventure is completely absent from “Mr. Holmes” as a film. The story unfolds slowly, the soundtrack never gives way to any crescendo at dramatic moments as it does in the cheesy flick McKellen’s Holmes views with contempt.
Yet it is Mr. Holmes’ tendency to be bluntly honest that continually causes him and others pain. In a moment where Ann reaches out to Holmes for understanding, he gives back logic. In the present, when Roger is hurt, Holmes’s calls for an ambulance before telling the housekeeper-Roger’s mother- what happened. In fact he doesn’t even approach her, she only realizes something is wrong because she overhears his phone call. “I’m his mother!” she screams after he bypassed her.
For Holmes who could never understand the need of comforting lies- embracing them in his last years is where we’re headed. As all three stories wrap up we see Holmes pen his first “foray into fiction”. For those who can’t believe in a heart-warmed version of Sherlock Holmes this movie won’t work. Although, presented with the facts of the film, this late in life turn around for the character makes sense.
Tags: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Mr. Holmes, Reviews, Sherlock Holmes