2015, PG, 104 min. Directed by Bill Condon. Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 17, 2015
Nearly 20 years after Gods and Monsters, the movie for which Bill Condon received his first major attention as a filmmaker, the director reunites with that movie’s star, Ian McKellen, for another film in a similar vein. Mr. Holmes is based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, which pictures Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated detective Sherlock Holmes in his retirement, his powers of deduction still nimble but under increasing assault by the forgetfulness of old age. Like Gods and Monsters, which is a fictive account of the last days of James Whale, the director of Frankenstein, Mr. Holmes bores down into the myths that prop up notable figures of the popular imagination, myths reinforced by their cinematic incarnations. Yet, comparatively, Mr. Holmes, suffers. Although it’s a pleasant and handsome endeavor, Mr. Holmes hasn’t the consuming drive and sense of inexorability that marks the award-winning Gods and Monsters.
Holmes lives in Dover, on the southern coast of England, where he took up residence after retiring in 1917 due to his failure to resolve a certain case. He lives in a cottage, where he tends to his beehives, and his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney) and her young son Roger (Parker) tend to him. Thirty years have passed, and Holmes is now in his early 90s and has recently returned from a trip to Japan, where one of his correspondents has lured him with the promise of a memory-enhancing plant. Holmes is teaching the fatherless Roger to care for the apiary and also coaches the boy’s budding intellect, while Mrs. Munro, a war widow, wishes for little but employment elsewhere. (It’s a thankless role that has little chance of earning Linney the wide acclaim accorded to Lynn Redgrave as the housekeeper in Gods and Monsters.) Additionally, Holmes is trying to resolve the case he was working on when he retired, a case that involved a sad and beautiful married woman (Morahan). These three intermingled story lines perhaps contribute to the film’s dampened overall effect.
McKellen is marvelous, as usual. His Holmes relishes in the opportunity to tell fans that he really wore a top hat and the deerstalker cap was a figment of his chronicler Dr. Watson’s imagination. At one point, we even observe him in a movie theatre viewing the inaccuracies of the onscreen Holmes. His growing warmth for his young acolyte Roger is unlike anything we’ve seen in previous Holmes incarnations. This film is also unlike the recent, more modern iterations of the detective we’ve seen in such TV shows as Sherlock and Elementary. Mr. Holmes has a traditional sensibility, which is fine, but feels like it needed to tuck a few more rabbits under its top hat.