Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes is a perfectly “nice” motion picture, with its rustic unfolding and drowsy pacing and stodgy sensibility contributing to what could amount to a very classy nap. This 2015 flick is based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, which finds Sherlock Holmes in his waning years as his memory fades to dust.
It’s reasonable to consider Mr. Holmes as the adaptation of a fan fiction, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle all but a ghost. In this cosmos, the rousing folklore of the world’s greatest detective is the extravagant result of Dr. Watson’s embroidering. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay lacks for anything so thrilling.
Ian McKellen stars as Holmes and he’s 93-years-old. He lives in Sussex, in a farmhouse with a housekeeper named Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and a boy named Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes is trying to repair his flagging memory using a plant he retrieved from Japan and he’s trying to right Watson’s wrongs by writing his own account of his last case.
Unfortunately, Holmes can’t remember the details. Roger moseys along and helps him fill in some gaps. There are flashbacks to the detective as he helps Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) find out what’s going on with his wife (Hattie Morahan). There are also recurrences to the Japan trip, where Holmes meets an admirer (Hiroyuki Sanada).
Mr. Holmes should be an interesting film. The notion of a character going over the particulars of his legend theoretically accounts for some neat psychological jabbing, but Condon moves through this material like he’s labouring in mud. It’s all “old people” clichés, complete with Holmes tumbling out of bed and whatnot.
McKellen is fine in the part, but it’s not much of a part. Hatcher’s Holmes is written from a position of distance, which makes the internal digging problematic. Left with little, McKellen works through the usual paces and tries to transmit something of use from underneath the craggy padding. There’s supposed to be some sort of “real life” to Holmes, but this movie doesn’t find it.
Part of the problem is that it tries to do too much. There are too many stories. The flashbacks are fussy and they mess with momentum, creating more problems than solutions along the way. And by sticking Watson as Doyle, it supplants the imagination behind the detective and creates a universe bogged down by its own snobbish reality.
The resultant stew is a Holmes learning to come to terms with himself before he’s gone. Condon has the detective meander into a theatre where a Holmes movie is playing, generating a cute meta moment. But without significant context, the scene is just a hit in a sea of misses.
Holmes also attempts to piece together the emotions he figures he’s supposed to feel. Mr. Holmes leaves this up to the old-versus-young dynamic, with Linney’s character wobbling on the sidelines. There’s little sustaining in the relationship between Holmes and Roger and a late-game bee-related incident is desperate.
Condon’s polish is notorious and it’s in full effect here, right from the moment the steam train pulls through the emerald countryside and dawdles from Holmes’ inside-the-cabin perspective to fat wide shots. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler does come up with some handsome shots from time to time, like when he puts Holmes behind dappled glass as he follows Mrs. Kelmot around.
But it’s not enough. Mr. Holmes plays around the edges of neat ideas, but it’s ultimately too inert. While McKellen is perfectly pleasant as the titular character, this is a lethargic and feeble stroll through the latter days of one of literature’s most fascinating figures.