Condon’s ‘Mr. Holmes’ finds famed super sleuth well past his prime

July 16, 2015, 11:18 p.m.

Throwing the traditional detective mystery aside, “Mr. Holmes” promises a new, more sentimental look at the man behind the myth: the “real” Sherlock Holmes. Adapted from Mitch Cullen’s “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” it would be easy to mistake “Mr. Holmes” for yet another film about the young, irascible supersleuth recently popularized by leading men like Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. In director Bill Condon’s take on the legendary detective, however, Sherlock is far from youthful. At the ripe old age of 93, Condon’s Sherlock is retired in the rural English countryside, a cranky old beekeeper slowly losing his memory and mind. Though obviously lacking the energy of recent adaptations, “Mr. Holmes” uses Sherlock’s advanced age as a lens through which to develop a new, rather refreshing perspective on the timeless detective. Like Holmes’ joints, the pacing is a bit jerky, with some portions of the plot feeling too slow and others too rushed. The film’s story and impressive performances, however, make “Mr. Holmes” a heartwarming trip-down-memory-lane drama, even if lacking in obvious action and adventure.

Set in 1947, 33 years after his last case, Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellan) has outlived his brother and Dr. Watson and now lives with Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), his widowed housekeeper, and her son Roger (Milo Parker). Rather than solving any new mysteries, Holmes now struggles to remember the cases he solved decades previous. Yet, when he is reminded of a peculiar case — his last — Holmes battles his fading mind to set the record straight on the suspiciously pat affair before his mental status deteriorates past recovery. In an attempt to preserve his dulling wits, Holmes travels to Japan for a rumored cure and, once he returns to England, sets his mind to writing the real story down with the help of a newly acquired herb. With Roger’s help, Holmes then slowly pieces together the fragments of the tale and uncovers what really happened in his greatest “failure.”

Taking place far after the conclusion of Holmes’ glory days, the film’s focus is not the mystery and detective work for which other Holmes productions have become so well known. In fact, the greatest mystery in the movie is how the film’s three plotlines (the present day, a subplot involving a trip to postwar Japan, and his last case) connect.

What it lacks in intrigue, however, the story more than makes up for in emotional payoff. Despite Roger’s repeated insistence that Holmes do “the thing,” screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher’s narrative relies less on Holmes’ trademark reasoning and more a portrait of an elderly man as he reflects on the interpersonal and spiritual aspects of his life in attempt to comes to terms with himself.

(l-r) Ian McKellan and Laura Linney star in Bill Condon's "Mr. Holmes." (Giles Keyte, Miramax and Roadside Attractions)
(l-r) Ian McKellan and Laura Linney star in Bill Condon’s “Mr. Holmes.” (Giles Keyte, Miramax and Roadside Attractions)

As Sherlock, Sir Ian McKellan does not disappoint, easily asserting himself as both the emotional and dramatic pillar of the film. Switching between the sturdier 63 year old and frail 93 year old Holmes, McKellan manages to craft two distinct, though ultimately similar portraits of the same man. Younger Holmes walks straight, talks clearly and evidently still has a grasp on his mental facilities. Older Holmes, on the other hand, is visibly plagued by his regrets, loneliness and the physical impairments that old age brings. Hunched over, bed-ridden and emotionally unstable, Old Holmes seems ready to fall over dead.

With that being said, the film isn’t exactly full of tired, old men trying to grasp whatever straws they have left. Milo Parker, with all his youthful energy, provides a perfect foil to the tired nonagenarian at his side. With a skip in his step and a quick, clever tongue, Parker gives the movie the hint of juvenile joy it needs. While he is no Watson, Parker’s Roger is the companion that the aging detective so clearly needs in his final years.

Those who enjoy the pulse-pounding thrills of other adaptations will probably find themselves disappointed with Condon’s take. As a consequence of Holmes’s age, the plot lacks any sort of visible action or adventure. It is, for all intents and purposes, a difficult walk, not run, down memory lane.

In addition, the film has a tendency to be a bit on-the-nose it its symbolism. As Condon loves to remind his audience, Holmes resides in a Sussex farm as a beekeeper. As a result, bees (and how they differ from wasps) become a central point in the movie, so much so that the opening scene and climax revolve around the distinction. Although clever, after the 20th mention, such symbolism is as subtle as a bull in a china shop.

Yet, the story has something that other Holmes stories lack: heart. It showcases Holmes’ emotions and humanity, not as his weakness or liability, but as a vital part of his character that he previously neglected and now needs to cultivate in light of his mortality. “Mr. Holmes” might look like a typical detective caper at first glance, but the mystery is already solved. Instead, it’s all a matter of piecing together the memories and what they mean. For those wanting a heart-warming tale of redemption and remembrance, “Mr. Holmes” delivers.

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