'Mr. Holmes' offers a unique, if underwhelming take on cinema's most famous character

Aug 5, 2015 at 1:00 am

Mr. Holmes | C+

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes

There is an elegance to Ian McKellen that cannot be denied. Even when he's playing a thinly sketched version of Sherlock Holmes, the actor imbues his performances with a sly, sentimentality-resistant sense of acerbic ego. In particular, he nails a distinctly upper crust British disdain for the working class — here personified by Laura Linney (another terrific actor who is given a role inadequate to her formidable talents) — as he responds to emotionally charged situations with cold logic and decorum. Were Bill Condon's exploration of the lonely and alienating impact Holmes' dedication to detached sleuthing had on his psyche, Mr. Holmes the film might, at least, be an interesting dramatic treatment of the world-famous character. After all, the 2012 Guinness Book of World Records officially determined that no human being had been depicted more often on film than Sherlock Holmes. Surely there is room for unconventional treatments and approaches.

And as much as this adaptation of Mitch Cullin's 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind (he also co-scripted with Jeffrey Hatcher) wants to present just that, it falls woefully short of creating anything memorable or special. Condon's reunion with McKellen (they worked together on 1998's superior Gods and Monsters) imagines Holmes as a rheumy, 93-year-old beekeeper living in Sussex and struggling with the onset of dementia. It's 1947, and the famed detective, we are to believe, is real, living under the care of his resentful housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney) and her starry-eyed young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Embarrassed by the romantic liberties his former partner, John Watson, took in chronicling their adventures in bestselling novels, Holmes is determined to pen a more true-to-life account of his final case — the one that ultimately caused him to retire. Unfortunately, his memories are distant, haunting echoes. Talking to Roger, however, seems to reinvigorate him and the two form the kind of bond art house movies are made of, launching the film's cascade of flashbacks within flashbacks. These take us to postwar Hiroshima, Japan, where Holmes searches for a root that will stem his declining mental faculties, and, in piecemeal fashion, to the particulars of his final case, which involves suspected infidelity, a glass harmonica, and an inconsolable wife.

It sounds a lot more promising than it is, as each subplot meanders toward a less than satisfying conclusion. The case Holmes obsesses over is particularly disappointing. Not only is there no mystery to solve, its threadbare plot is unconvincing in the way it attempts to illustrate Holmes' detachment from his own life and possible depression. Which is a shame because the character offers great opportunity to examine the disconnect between matters of the heart and mind. Hatcher and Cullin suggest Holmes' dedication to emotional containment resulted in profound loneliness, but it is a notion poorly integrated into the stories at hand. Holmes' last case culminates in a brief encounter with a woman who reaches out to him for solace but receives only logic. Her response supposedly ignited a lifetime of regret. It's a stretch under the most generous of circumstances.

The joy of Arthur Conan Doyle books was the way they balanced personal and procedural tensions, forcing Holmes to both exercise his genius and realize his social disconnection from the world. Condon's film has a trio of stories occurring in different timelines, but they are far too flimsy and schematic to add to much more than a senior-citizen version of fan fiction.

Disappointingly, even the intriguing premise of the brilliant detective struggling to hold onto his celebrated genius as age erodes his faculties is poorly conceived, mostly serving to delay us from learning the particulars of Holmes' final, ultimately underwhelming, case. There is a charmingly meta moment where Holmes goes to the cinema to watch the fictionalized version of himself on the silver screen, but it's the only interesting scene in yet another tastefully pedestrian drama about a lonely old man befriending a young boy and telling him his life story.

Luckily, the relationship between Holmes and Roger works. There is genuine chemistry between McKellen and Parker, and the little bit of thematic sophistication that resonates comes from the boy's realization that his cherished hero is subject to the same tragic realities as everyone else. Unfortunately, the screenwriters can't resist the urge to throw in a third act tragedy that is more about manipulating the audience than serving the story.

McKellen, in the end, is what makes the movie worth watching. With his gnarled mug and fierce gaze, he effortlessly slips between Holmes' timelines, transitioning from doddering, regret-filled confusion to the more poised and incisive persona of his prime. If only the final caper matched the character. Sherlock Holmes deserved far better.