I love Sherlock Holmes in all his many incarnations, and when I heard that director Bill Condon was making a movie about an elderly Holmes played by Ian McKellan, I cheered. The two had previously collaborated on the wonderful Gods and Monsters — about the classic Frankenstein filmmaker James Whale in his later years — so this new film was bound to be great, wasn’t it? I was a tad sorry to learn that Mr. Holmes, though based on a novel, was not based on the fabulous Mary Russell series written by Laurie King [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] [iTunes U.S.] [iTunes Canada] [iTunes U.K.], in which an elderly Holmes takes on a very young detective apprentice who later becomes his wife, although probably those books deserve a languid multi-episode television production. Or even Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] [iTunes U.S.] [iTunes Canada] [iTunes U.K.], which might be the best Conan Doyle pastiche ever, except it touches on subject matter that a Victorian author never could have (I’ll leave you to find out what that is) (oh, but Silk is about a Holmes in his prime, so never mind). I haven’t read Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, the basis for Mr. Holmes. But that wasn’t a problem.
So what’s my problem with Mr. Holmes? It’s this: It’s simply not very Holmesian. McKellen (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, X-Men: Days of Future Past) is as lovely as he always is and a great pleasure to watch as a man in his 90s reflecting back on his life and his failings with regret, grief, guilt, and loneliness… but if that doesn’t sound in the least bit like anything Sherlock Holmes would do, bingo. These are rather sentimental endeavors, and Holmes would have no interest in them. Oh, Mr. Holmes — the script is by Jeffrey Hatcher (The Duchess, Casanova) — may think it has a way to explain why this Holmes isn’t very much like the Holmes we know: Watson “embellished” things in his stories, McKellan’s Holmes explains whenever he can to people who expect him to wear a deerstalker or smoke a pipe or do “the thing” (eg, “You arrived on the 8:43 train at Paddington after a breakfast of toast and marmalade and a pot of tea steeped for precisely six minutes.”). But that’s a self-defeating explanation. We like that Holmes. We checked in here for a chance to spend time with that Holmes. The general wonderfulness of McKellen aside, the “real” man behind the myth isn’t as fascinating as that Holmes, and his old-man remorse isn’t terribly different from many similar stories we’ve seen about old men who aren’t Holmes.
The plot is driven by Holmes’ frustrations with the embellishments of Watson (who isn’t a character here): now, in 1947, he wants to write down his own version of his final case, 35 years earlier, but he’s losing his memory and can’t quite recall all the details, or why it ended so terribly that he quit the business. Flashbacks to that case — instigated by a man (Patrick Kennedy: Me and Orson Welles, Atonement) who asks Holmes to investigate his wife (Hattie Morahan: Summer in February, The Bank Job) because she has been acting very strangely — are intertwined with a trip Holmes takes to Japan to collect a medicinal plant that may help boost his memory, and also to visit with Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada: 47 Ronin, The Railway Man), who insists that Holmes knew his father and might be able to explain a mystery of his father’s behavior. A side trip with Umezaki to Hiroshima — yes, in 1947 — is touchingly eerie and moving, but the film isn’t much concerned with Holmes in the “modern” world; he mostly keeps himself to himself in his home in the quiet Sussex countryside, where he tends to his bees and worries his housekeeper, war widow Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney: The Fifth Estate, Hyde Park on Hudson), with his forgetfulness and frailness. The very best bits of the movie come in Holmes’ interactions with Mrs. Munro’s young son, Roger (Milo Parker: Robot Overlords), perhaps because they evince a boisterous boy’s lack of sentimentality and unabashed curiosity about the old man.
Condon has made a film that looks absolutely gorgeous, all buzzing bees on summer days and (in those flashbacks) the simple elegance of Edwardian London. But while how that final case eventually resolves itself is perhaps meant to indicate why Holmes has — relatively speaking, for him — turning into a sad old coot, I just can’t buy it. I suspect Holmes himself would snort in derision at it.