Back on the case

An old mystery invades the twilight years of world’s greatest detective

Starring Ian McKellen and Laura Linney. Directed by Bill Condon. Cinemark 14 and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG.
Rated 4.0

The title character is none other than Sherlock Holmes himself, but here he’s Sherlock without Dr. Watson and the deerstalker hat. In Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes (based on a novel by Mitch Cullin), it’s 1947 and the aged great detective has long since left sleuthing behind. He’s living in semi-solitude in a large country house and he’s trying to write an account of an unexpectedly complicated encounter with a mysterious woman on a long-ago case that still haunts him.

Slippages in Holmes’ memories add urgency and suspense to his authorial efforts, and the story itself is a time-shifting mosaic of episodes and character connections. He’s become a devoted beekeeper in retirement and he tries to pass on what he’s learned in that realm to young Roger (Milo Parker), the bright and eager son of Holmes’ rather haughty housemaid, the widowed Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney).

Flashbacks fill out the other major story strands: Holmes’ labyrinthian involvement with the mysterious Mrs. Kelmot (Hattie Morahan); and a voyage to Japan, where he visited with the son of a former diplomat there for reasons that prove both scientific and personal.

Spiritual themes slide quietly into view, especially in the Kelmot story and the Japan visit, but it’s not until the film’s remarkable final images that they become unmistakably central, and even then there’s a beguiling offhandedness to the discovery. Other large themes—the truth in fiction and fantasy, nature and memory as healing refuges that are both powerful and problematic—are handled with a mostly charming nonchalance as well.

There’s a powerful nostalgia in all this, but one that is directed mainly toward older forms of storytelling. The various shivers of nostalgia for a bucolic past get thoroughly chastened by references to the calamities of two world wars (including especially the bombing of Hiroshima) and by the darker shadings of fine performances by McKellen and Linney.