Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 4, 2015)
What happened to Sherlock Holmes after his sleuthing days came to an end? 2015’s Mr. Holmes explores that concept, as it views the detective in his waning days.
In this universe, Holmes (Ian McKellen) was a real detective, one who earned fame due to the fictionalized stories written by his former partner, Dr. John Watson. Set in 1947, the 93-year-old Holmes retired long ago and now lives a sedate country life with housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).
Bothered by the fictional version of himself propagated by Watson’s stories, Holmes decides to set the record straight via his own writing. He encounters a problem, though: as dementia sets in, the elderly Holmes finds it tough to recall events.
This comes to a head as he works through one particularly troubling case that still haunts him decades later. Flashbacks show us aspects of this investigation as well as the impact it has on the 1940s Holmes.
If nothing else, Holmes comes with a clever concept. I like the idea that Holmes really existed and has to deal with the reputation achieved by a phony version of himself. That notion adds an intriguing undercurrent to the film.
Otherwise, Holmes feels like something of a mixed bag. On the positive side, it boasts a nice cast, led by a terrific performance from McKellen. Because the film forces him to play Holmes at two different ages – 60s and 90s – the actor needs to offer very different takes on the character, and he does so well. The 60-something Holmes doesn’t feel like a different person than the 93-year-old version, but McKellen gives us enough differences to depict the impact of age. McKellen does the heavy lifting here, so when the film works, it’s mostly because of his contribution.
Linney offers a suitably grounded performance as Holmes’ primary caretaker, and Parker provides nice work as her son. He doesn’t turn into a cutesy-pie movie urchin, so we can see why the salty Holmes bonds with him.
Unfortunately, the connection between Holmes and Roger becomes one of the movie’s weaker elements. Roger mostly feels like a plot point, honestly, as he seems like a device who exists to prompt Holmes’ actions and memories. Sure, Roger also gives Holmes something of an emotional life, but I think he largely becomes unnecessary. The story has enough intrigue without the need for a semi-manufactured relationship between Holmes and a kid.
That said, the Holmes/Roger moments stay low-key enough and they avoid much movie schmaltz. While I don’t think the tale really needs them, these sequences create no obvious problems, and some may feel they add warmth and depth to the film. I don’t really agree, but I don’t strongly disagree, either.
Holmes does work better when it concentrates on Holmes’ aging-connected issues and the case that continues to bother him. The film relates these elements in a compelling manner, as it dollops out just enough information along the way to create its own mystery.
Not that the movie treats the decades-old case like a standard Sherlock adventure would. Instead, Holmes infuses emotional elements that let us see why the elderly detective remains focused on those earlier events.
All of these elements add up to a reasonably satisfying drama. While Mr. Holmes can drag at times, it still gives us a fairly involving look at its subject and connected events. I can’t call this a stellar story, but it does enough right to entertain.