I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a movie like this. Mr. Holmes, a pastiche of the great detective in his dotage, grabbed me in the opening credits and didn’t let go, even to the point where I felt a bit of a tear in my eye. This film not only honors the iconic character (there have been more films about Sherlock Holmes than any other human character–according to Guinness in 2012, it was at 254*) but it is also a meditation on aging and what, at the end of the day, is important about life.
Mr. Holmes was directed by Bill Condon and written by Jeffrey Hatcher, and they have both worked a minor miracle, as the film manages three timelines with precision and excellent pacing. The main timeline is the film’s present–1947. Holmes is now 93, and living a quiet life of beekeeping on the Sussex coast. He is also, to his horror, losing his memory.
The second timeline is his recent trip to Japan to meet a man who has a plant that is said to ward off senility. Holmes visits the recently bombed Hiroshima to find it, but discovers the man had an ulterior motive for luring him to Japan.
The third timeline is just after the end of World War I, and is Holmes’ last case. It involves a man wanting to know what his wife is up to, but Holmes in 1947 can’t remember what happened. He knows he must have done something terrible, because afterward he resolved to retire.
These three threads intertwine as Holmes strikes up a friendship with his housekeeper’s son (Milo Parker), who shows cleverness. The old man and the boy tend to the bees together as Parker listens to what Holmes can remember of his last case. Meanwhile, his housekeeper (Laura Linney), having had enough of him, wants to take a job at a hotel in Portsmouth.
Mr. Holmes adheres to what aficionados call “the Game,” that is, thinking that Holmes was real person, and that Dr. Watson wrote up his cases (there isn’t a mention of Arthur Conan Doyle anywhere in the film). Thus we get the great scene of Holmes attending a film based on his last case (his cinematic alter ego, presumably playing Basil Rathbone, is Nicholas Rowe, who played Holmes in Young Sherlock Holmes some thirty years ago). This whitewashing of the truth pushes Holmes to figure out just what happened in that case, and when he discovers the truth, he learns something about himself that is not pleasant.
Everything about this film is wonderful, starting with Ian McKellen’s performance as Holmes. It’s a breathtaking performance, full of pathos yet understanding how his mind works. He does “that thing,” where he makes deductions about people based on their clothes, etc., but does not wear a deerstalker or smoke a pipe. “Those were embellishments by the illustrator,” Holmes tells a disappointed fan. “I prefer a cigar.”
This will surely be one of my favorite films of the year, and deserves accolades not only for the performances but for the music, costumes, and art direction. It also has some very important information about the differences between wasp and bee stings.
My grade for Mr. Holmes: A.
.*Dracula, being non-human, holds the overall record of 272.