The supporting cast does not disappoint.
Indeed, Holmes has little regard for Watson’s fictions, which he dismisses as “absolute rubbish … penny dreadfuls with elevated prose”. This is what Sherlock Holmes has been reduced to: predicting the behavior of dull-witted children, performing what someone else in the movie refers to as his “parlor trick”. In flashbacks (or, more accurately, stories subjectively reconstructed), Holmes investigates a client’s wayward wife (Hattie Morahan) and crosses paths with a glass armonica teacher (Frances de la Tour) making claims of occult powers.
Yet “Mr. Holmes” does all it can to subvert stereotypes. It rests entirely on script and performance- no gimmicks here. The film opens in select theaters across the US on Friday, July 17.
Mr. Holmes, based on a novel by Mitch Cullin, imagines a world where the great Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) was a very real man. A celebrity thanks to Dr. Watson’s embellished literary accounts of his adventures, Holmes is worldly, famous, razor-sharp and enchantingly charismatic. These elements float through his life and mind, unrelated to each other except in ways that only a renowned detective, or novelist, could deduce. Slow-moving and unsteady, Holmes in 1947 (Ian McKellen) is physically compromised, and he requires tending by a somewhat dour housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her alertly curious young son, Roger (Milo Parker). Because while it’s hardly urgent or experimental filmmaking, “Mr. Holmes” is surprisingly satisfying, with more flourishes in terms of its structure of interlinked stories from several time periods than you might expect. What it dwells on most, however, are the uses (and misuses) of fiction: The film is a disquisition on storytelling. Not only to work with him and Ian, but because it was about Sherlock Holmes whom I’ve always had a fascination with. That’s a mystery to Holmes himself, who hopes to reverse memory loss by consuming royal honey from his own bees – and prickly ash, another possible cure he’s procured during a mysterious recent trip to Japan. Mr. Holmes thus has an elegiac lion-in-winter quality to it, as we see the celebrated sleuth quietly raging against the dying of the light, trying to tease the details of that last unsolved case out of the depths of his waning intellect. It is not your parents’ Sherlock Holmes: Jeremy Brett played Sherlock in a hit British TV series from 1984 to 1994.
That failing doesn’t diminish what matters most, here: time with McKellen’s Holmes, in good days and bad. I would argue Mr. Holmes is stately and rather handsome.
Mr. Holmes doesn’t smoke a meerschaum pipe. Holmes’s forensic-style reads of people aren’t what they used to be. In the end, Holmes was unable to help, and it haunts him now; he must write the truth of it before the story is forgotten completely. In a moment where Ann reaches out to Holmes for understanding, he gives back logic.
Laura Linney, as the housekeeper, has to do some heavy lifting. In fact he doesn’t even approach her, she only realizes something is wrong because she overhears his phone call.
It would be hard to imagine McKellen not excelling in this part, and of course he does, bringing his skill at creating an understated yet powerful performance. There is also a fantastic scene where Holmes goes to see a film adaptation of one of his cases; in this film within a film, the detective is played by Nicholas Rowe, who some readers may remember played the detective decades ago in Young Sherlock Holmes.