Sherlock Holmes is literature’s great noticer, wise for his powers of perception and logical reasoning. His long legacy of imitators – basically every detective since 1887 – can’t quite match him for suis generis deduction. Unlike some mysteries where you can feel the author stacking the deck in their lead’s favor with arbitrary observations leading to a solution, there’s something authentic about the original Holmes stories’ satisfying logic. I’ve always found them to contain a near supernatural sense that Holmes would be able to solve any mystery, not for any great leaps of intuition, but for his ability to process and interpret information. But what author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle giveth, director Bill Condon taketh away in Mr. Holmes, a slow, poignant meditation on aging that finds the great detective near the end of his life.
This film finds a good new perspective on an oft-adapted character. Its greatest mystery is his memory, as a 93-year-old Holmes (Ian McKellen, aged with convincing makeup and frail physicality) deals with his declining abilities decades after his retirement. It’s the late 1940s. He’s now a lonely old man. Watson and Mycroft are gone, as is his Baker Street home. Instead he lives near the sea in a distant country home with only his buzzing apiary, his stern housekeeper (Laura Linney), and her precocious boy (Milo Parker) to keep him company. Facing creeping senility, his memory is fading, and his mental agility has slowed. It bothers him. The very thing that made him useful, from which he derived his purpose and his fame, was his mind. What to do now that the most troubling unknowns he must puzzle out on a daily basis are names and places?
Screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, adapting a novel by Mitch Cullin, juggles three plotlines, as Holmes finds his mind drawn to his final case. He can’t quite remember the details, something about a man (Patrick Kennedy) worried about his wife (Hattie Morahan), but wants to write down what he can before he forgets entirely. All he knows is that it ended in a way that convinced him to retire. We’re drawn back into these flashbacks where a sprightlier McKellen puts a bounce in his step and a twinkle in his eye to play Holmes in his prime, which makes the sight of the stooped, slowed man in the film’s present all the more affecting. Interspersed with these two timelines are glimpses of a post-World War II trip to Japan where Holmes met with a man (Hiroyuki Sanada) who promises to help him find a plant to help stave off dementia.
The way these plotlines interact is confused, and never quite reaches a satisfying convergence. But holding it together is Condon’s smooth and soft approach, which frames period detail in a comfortably handsome structure, emphasizing crisp British Masterpiece Theater subtlety and sturdy empathy. Best of all is Condon's focus on McKellen (the director and star of Gods and Monsters reunited) and his tremendous performance. The great actor capably plays different stages of Holmes life, both an aging charmer and a man dragged back into memory while still trying to be of some use. He lets us see every bit of the younger Holmes we know filtering through the older man's countenance, sparkling animated eyes in a dignified wrinkled face. In the film’s best subplot, he forms a warm, wonderful grandfatherly relationship with the housekeeper’s son. The boy is eager to learn from the great man he’s read about and whom he admires, and Holmes is happy to find someone who he can engage intellectually. It’s a sweet intergenerational friendship, where the young and the old bond over shared passions for learning, thinking, a sense of discovery, and mystery.
Mr. Holmes is a tenderly felt and delicately wrought film, crackling with a delightful lead performance, relaxed and complex. For a man defined by his intellect, it’s important to maintain his sense of educated perception. That’s what makes his mental slippage so devastating, something he fights against and tries to ignore. It speaks to a desire to stand near the end and look back into one’s life, trying to make sense of it while looking forward to the legacy one hopes to leave behind. The film compassionately imagines a graceful and wistful twilight for the great Sherlock Holmes, finding small surprises and resonant emotional detail in a man who has left his life’s vocation behind him but can’t stop noticing, piecing together old memories while forging new ones in the hopes of still being able to make a difference in another’s life.