Movie Review

'Mr. Holmes': An Elegy for a Fading Mind

Despite meticulous acting, Bill Condon's film fails to bring emotional heft to the tragedy of the aging and gradual disappearance of the human intellect.

Giles Keyte

Mr. Holmes Directed by Bill Condon; written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the book by Mitch Cullin; with Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Frances de la Tour

At one point in Bill Condon’s “Mr. Holmes,” the elderly Sherlock Holmes finds himself at a matinee showing of one of the Sherlock Holmes movies made in Hollywood in the 1940s. The detective is astonished at his own portrayal on the screen, and stunned by the adventures he supposedly took part in. Watching this scene, I found myself wondering what Holmes – and yes, I know he is a made-up character – would have thought of his strange recent incarnations in the movies (such as those starring Robert Downey Jr.) and on television (in “Elementary,” for example). He might have been more comfortable with Condon’s film, though probably not thrilled that the movie focuses on his old age and the decline of the mental powers that made him the most famous detective in the history of popular fiction.

“Mr. Holmes” is tied to Bill Condon’s best movie to date, the 1998 “Gods and Monsters,” not because both films star Ian McKellen, but because both have heroes – one real, the other fictional – who struggle with the final stage of their path. “Gods and Monsters” focused on James Whale, the British director who worked in Hollywood and in the 1930s made some of the greatest horror movies of all time, including “Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man,” and “Bride of Frankenstein,” before his career declined and he remained in the U.S. as a kind of exile. What drove the film was the sudden surge of energy that Whale, an openly gay man, experiences when he falls for his straight gardener (Brendan Fraser). Whale’s attraction to the much younger man makes him wonder about the essence of sexual identity (the mysteries of human sexuality was the central theme of another of Condon’s movies, the 2004 “Kinsey,” a portrait of Alfred Kinsey and his life’s work).

“Mr. Holmes” abandons this exploration of desire. Unlike “Gods and Monsters,” which was melancholy but amused, the new movie is a kind of cinematic elegy for the aging of even the finest, sharpest human mind. Maybe that’s why it seems a bit sleepy. The movie’s banal side is executed successfully enough, but the materials that might have made it a unique work remain a missed opportunity.

Based on a novel by Mitch Cullin, “Mr. Holmes” is set in 1947, when 93-year-old Holmes returns from Japan to his home in Dover, England, where he is cared for by his housekeeper (Laura Linney), a war widow with a 10-year-old son, Roger (Milo Parker).

Incongruous visit

The story has two levels. One follows the relationship Holmes forms with Roger, a clever child whose deductive powers remind Holmes of himself; this is the more banal side, because we’ve seen many pictures before about how an older person and a child become friends, to their mutual benefit. For all its delicacy in following this bond, Condon’s movie has little new to offer.

On the second level, which might have been more interesting, Holmes returns to the case that made him give up detective work 30 years before (his associate, Watson, is long dead). We are introduced to the case through flashbacks: a man (Patrick Kennedy) came to Holmes asking him to followhis wife (Hattie Morahan), who was suffering from melancholy after two miscarriages and had fallen under the dangerous spell of a psychic (Frances de la Tour). Because Holmes’ memory is becoming unreliable, he has gone to Japan to meet an acquaintance with whom he has been exchanging letters (Hiroyuki Sanada), and from whom he has learned of a certain plant that might prevent dementia. The visit to Japan seems incongruous: the fact that he is searching for this plant in postwar Hiroshima seems to suggest some additional meaning, but just what that meaning is remains unclear, and the vagueness weighs the movie down.

The long-cold case is not very intriguing; certainly, this is not a source of suspense, though it does expose a certain romantic quality in Holmes. But Billy Wilder did that better in his 1970 “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” a work steeped in melancholy and irony. “Mr. Holmes,” by contrast, seems to play one single, moderate note, whether it is looking at the past or at the present. Perhaps Condon believed that such restraint would best represent Holmes’ decline, but it robs the movie of the ability to thrill. The result, therefore, is well made, but seems to offer little else. There’s the beautiful landscape of Dover, but a movie in which we pay too much attention to the landscape is usually a movie in some kind of trouble.

Ian McKellen’s performance as Holmes is no less meticulous, but it is too calculated. As James Whale in “Gods and Monsters,” he had a chance to embody contradictions and conflicts, playing a man constantly at odds with his vulgar Hollywood environment, so different from the homeland that rejected him, and struggling with the ability to express his sexuality. “Mr. Holmes” gives him much less to work with. Neither the screenplay nor McKellen’s performance manage to bring the necessary austerity to the human tragedy that lies in the aging and gradual disappearance of the human intellect. This topic, too, is handled in a sedate, even lyrical tone, and as a result, “Mr. Holmes” lacks the emotional heft it should have had. Laura Linney, a fine actress with a low-key style, is good as always in the supporting role she has been given here.