In Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen and director Bill Condon reunite for another story about an aging man confronting his mortality. Their first collaboration, 1998’s Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters, centered on filmmaker James Whale, best known for the groundbreaking 1930s horror classics Frankenstein and its superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein.
Although that earlier movie was based on a speculative novel, Whale was a real person. In Mr. Holmes, which is an adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s book A Slight Trick of the Mind, McKellen is playing a fictional character — the uncannily gifted detective Sherlock Holmes — but the movie treats him as if he had actually existed. In a bit of meta-revisionism, we learn that the author of the novels that made Holmes famous were actually written by his former assistant Dr. Watson, who is now married and presumably raising a family somewhere else.
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Holmes is 93, retired, suffering from Alzheimer’s and living alone in rural Sussex in 1947, tended to by his widowed maid (Laura Linney) and her 10-year-old son, Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes keeps himself busy with his hobbies, gardening and beekeeping (he uses their royal jelly as an herbal treatment for his condition). When Roger asks him if the bees are dangerous, Holmes proudly declares he’s been stung 786 times (naturally, he kept count) but they are otherwise harmless.
Although he’s not much for fiction (“I’ve never had much use for imagination. I prefer facts.”), he goes to the theater to watch a movie based on one of Watson’s novels, and McKellen’s face conveys the mixture of emotions Holmes feels about his onscreen incarnation: admiration, pride, hubris, disapproval.
But the film also inspires Holmes to revisit the case Watson wrote about — the one that got away unsolved and made him put down his magnifying glass for good. In these early scenes, Condon builds a stately pace and a serene aura that befits his protagonist: This is not the charismatic Sherlock Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr., but an irritable, somewhat frightened man who is hanging on to his most prized commodity — his mind — by writing notes to himself on the cuffs of his shirtsleeves and keeping a chart of every time his memory fails. McKellen, who is 76 (and sports makeup effects to make him look older), captures the frailty and lament of a man in his 90s, aware he’s nearing the end of his life and nagged by regret over something from his past he can’t quite remember.
So the detective embarks on one final case, writing his own novel as a counterpoint to Watson’s version of the events. From here, the movie jumps to intriguing life, juggling three plot strands — the present, Holmes’ investigation of a musical instrument with magical powers 30 years earlier and a trip to Japan to obtain rare ash from Hiroshima — via flashbacks and leaps in time. Initially, the structure feels a bit bewildering: The tender, grandfatherly relationship between Holmes and the fatherless Roger is much more involving than all this other side business. But Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher reward your patience by bringing the threads together in a beautiful, stirring manner that celebrates the genius of the literary icon while also honoring the man McKellen is playing. Sherlock Holmes may have never really walked the earth, but Mr. Holmes humanizes him to such a degree, you walk out of the theater practically convinced you’ve just watched a biopic.
Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy.
Director: Bill Condon.
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher. Based on the book “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 104 minutes. Brief disturbing imagery, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, Sunset Place. In Broward: Gateway, Paradise, Coconut Creek.