Review: Mr. Holmes (2015)

Mr. Holmes is a slight mystery and a gentle character study. It’s also a tonic for any filmgoer whose nerves are frayed from the noisy multiplexes of 2015. At a time when each new franchise instalment must boast bigger stakes and apocalyptic-scale destruction, and every prestige drama loudly proclaims its own “significance,” a nice, small, well-crafted movie with a limited-yet-keen eye is a welcome diversion.   

As the title announces, the movie is about Sherlock Holmes. Based not on one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries but on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, the film imagines Holmes as an old man of 93. It’s 1947, and Watson is long dead and Holmes has retired to the country to tend to bees, his only companions his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her boy (Milo Parker). Holmes’s memory is fading, and he’s just returned from a trip to Japan to procure the prickly ash plant that he hopes will restore his mental faculties. He’s keen to improve his memory in order to fully recall and write down his final case. He can’t remember the exact outcome, but he’s haunted by a sense of failure and maintains that the case was the event that led him to retire. The plot includes many flashbacks to not only Holmes’s recent journey to Japan but also the final case, which involves a husband who is concerned that his wife has come under some sort of dark influence.

Ian McKellen is very good, playing a convincing 93-year-old (with great makeup) as well as a slightly younger Holmes just before he retires. It’s a pleasure to see the great actor as the famous character. McKellen’s growling voice conveys the misanthropy inherent to Holmes, but he also nicely handles moments of self-recognition and the character’s gradual move towards gentleness.

In this way, the film is a character study of a famous fictional personage, as well as an examination of the connection between memory and mystery. Holmes, who was usually very much an active investigator when he was younger, becomes a sort of armchair detective, as he investigates the past mystery through memory.

Like Holmes, the film exhibits eccentricities. I found these various side-interests—which include beekeeping, royal jelly, the prickly ash, and the eerie music of the glass harmonica—to be as intriguing as the central mystery itself.

Perhaps the least successful aspect of the film is its presentation (stronger in the marketing but still occurring in the actual film) as one of those “the man behind the legend” pieces. It feeds into the odd yet persistent notion that Sherlock Holmes was a real person. There are some pleasant jokes in the film about the difference between the “real” Holmes and the “fictional” one created by Dr. Watson, but do we need to make Holmes historical for the character to have the same significance?

Fact versus fiction is one of the film’s dominant themes though. The cold, scientific Holmes, of course, exhibits the modern tendency to reduce fiction to non-truth, and even the film’s later endorsement of a kind of fiction suggests that fiction is no more than a necessary or pleasant lie. So a hard, rationalist, modern attitude in fact lingers beneath the nice, gentle tone of the film. Despite such thematic undercurrents, however, Mr. Holmes remains a small and fairly light mystery-drama.

Enjoy this movie on a weekend afternoon at home with a large cup of tea.

7 out of 10

Mr. Holmes (2015, UK/USA)

Directed by Bill Condon; screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher based on the novel by Mitch Cullin; starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, and Roger Allam.