The Final Problem: Mr. Holmes

07/15/2015 7:48 AM |
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Mr. Holmes
Directed by Bill Condon
Opens July 17

About halfway through Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes, the aging detective (Ian McKellen) visits a cinema and sees for the first time how his adventures have been adapted for the screen. As he watches the cheap melodrama unfold he scoffs at the quality of the storytelling, and one can’t help wondering how this incarnation of Sherlock would react to Robert Downey Jr.’s action-packed escapades or Benedict Cumberbatch’s near-robotic sleuthing—these two actors having redefined the iconic character for the 21st century. In comparison with slicker recent screen versions, Mr. Holmes initially comes off as laughably staid and old-fashioned, and something more suited to a Sunday evening TV slot than the big screen, but there is a depth and wisdom to be found behind the film’s doddery façade for the patient viewer.

McKellen plays Holmes both as a 93-year-old tending to his bees in Sussex and educating rapt apprentice Roger (Milo Parker), and as a sprightlier 60-year-old in flashbacks depicting the last case he took on before retirement. The tragic outcome of this investigation still weighs heavily on the detective’s conscience (there are shades of Vertigo throughout these scenes) and we see him trying to write his own version of events to come to terms with it, but the resolution of this particular mystery is ultimately beside the point. As Holmes reaches back into the past he finds his memories slipping through his fingers, with his once-brilliant mind beginning to fail him. McKellen’s stricken but dignified portrayal of the character’s crumbling faculties is often incredibly poignant, and his performance constitutes a more complex and human depiction of Holmes than we are used to seeing.

There are obvious parallels to be drawn with Condon and McKellen’s 1998 film Gods and Monsters. Both of these pictures deal with a singular artist as he faces the ravages of old age and the unreliability of memory, and in both cases this man has a tetchy relationship with his housekeeper (here it’s Laura Linney, doing a lot with very little). Mr. Holmes is a much more benign affair than their previous collaboration, but its time-shifting narrative has been assembled with the same intelligence and skill, and it gradually develops into a richly satisfying exploration of time, regret and the aspects of human nature that, as Holmes ruefully puts it, “logic alone cannot illuminate.”