There are few things (at least in terms of entertainment) that this reviewer enjoys more than a good murder mystery and a good helping of Sir Ian McKellen. So, Mr. Holmes, Bill Condon’s gentle ode to the twilight of a great detective and the last case that seems to still linger with him seemed almost too perfect of a treat for a summer otherwise filled with dinosaurs, terminators, minions and Amy Schumer.
Which is why it both delights and saddens me to report that the film (much like most other things that seem too perfect) is actually not perfect. At all. It does deliver heapingly in one aspect (the McKellen one) and under-delivers devastatingly in the other (the mystery). This is not to say that it is not enjoyable and lovely and even heartbreaking at times, but a Sherlock Holmes movie, even a “retired Sherlock Holmes movie” deserves a worthy mystery to hang its hat on. No matter how much clever, nudgeworthy, post-modern (yet so old-fashioned) smoke and mirrors you put on top.
You see, the premise is truly a worthy one: Mr. Holmes is 93, and his brain is failing him. As anyone who has relied heavily on their brain at any point in their lives can imagine, this is particularly devastating for a man who has relied heavily on his brain AT ALL POINTS OF HIS LIFE.
The movie opens with a classic British trope: a train scene – and Holmes is en route back from a trip to Japan to procure a root that should help his memory (you can always rely on some good mind altering substances in a Sherlock story) because, you see, he has one final task at hand: with his dear Dr. Watson dead, he wants to tell the story of the last case he ever took. The case he failed so miserably at (by his own admission) that it made him retire and become a recluse of sorts, living in the British countryside with nothing but a housekeeper and her young son as (only nominal) company.
And so the story goes three ways: the slow and uncertain retelling of that last case, the dynamics of an aging, jaded mind and a young, eager one as shown in the budding friendship between Holmes and his housekeeper’s boy, and a subplot involving his trip to Japan and a not-so-straightforward relationship between him and his host there. Of all three the middle one works by far the best thanks to the lovely dynamic between McKellan and the wide eyed, snub nosed Milo Parker who more than holds his own in this formidable company and provides some of the most genuine emotion in the film (be on the look-out for this kid, we have a feeling he will be EVERYWHERE soon). Laura Linney is on hand as the supposed voice of reason for these two thinkers as housekeeper and Mother and general martyr (a role she sadly seems to be getting typecast in, after the equally unthankful turn in Hyde Park on Hudson).
The less is said about the other two subplots the better – though at least the first one (the last case!) does have some lovely set-up moments (eeriness and foreign music instructors in shady attics abound), and some lovely meta moments (Sherlock going to see a Sherlock movie adaptation is a mini McKellen reaction masterclass) and the latter one does put our lead protagonist in a very real time and place (Japan, in the Hiroshima aftermath) instead of the immortal, bucolic, gentlemanly way most of his other cases and circumstances have.
The problem is that at 104 minutes there just isn’t enough time to provide enough emotional gravitas for all three to pack a punch. The solution, as easy of an out as this may seem, would have been to discard of one (we’d vote for the Japan substory) and beef up the other two, but I imagine Mitch Cullin’s novel (whose other novel was also inspired by another beloved literary character and resulted in Terry Gilliam’s Wonderland-y Tideland) is either too ambitious for his own good or too unambitious (after all, it takes a certain kind of man to dedicate his novel writing career to essentially very fancy fan fiction) to make plot decisions like that. And Condon, while great at actor work and iconic characters and the subtleties of human emotion, is no thriller director. For all the fun the film makes of Dr. Watson’s literary liberties (and it has fun making said fun), there is some amount of suspense that should have stayed in the game, no matter who the story teller is.
So, now you know. Go see Mr. Holmes if you are in the mood for a blockbuster respite, and some quality McKellen time, and maybe even a tear or two, but brace yourself my dear
Watson viewer: when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. And that is a mystery-free Sherlock Holmes movie.