In his preface to The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, editor Leslie S. Klinger says, “I perpetuate the gentle fiction that Holmes and Watson really lived …” and “gentle fiction” is a good description of director Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes (written by Jeffrey Hatcher, from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind). In reteaming Condon with Sir Ian McKellen as Holmes, and in its discreetly compassionate look at a unique talent near the end of his life, it also makes a poignant companion piece to Gods and Monsters, the 1998 movie Condon and McKellen made about the last days of director James Whale.
The movie gives us Sherlock Holmes in surroundings at once familiar and strange. As any devotee of the stories knows, he’s retired to the Sussex Downs, tending his beloved bees. But he’s 93, and it’s 1947, more than half a century and two world wars away from the foggy, gaslit London with its cobblestones and hansom cabs where we are accustomed to seeing him.
As the movie opens, Holmes is returning from a trip to Japan—in those days a grueling undertaking for a 93-year-old—where he met with a Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), a longtime admirer (or so he says) who offers to help Holmes find an elusive herb called prickly ash. This substance, which the two men find in the ruins of Hiroshima, interests Holmes for its supposed restorative qualities. The old detective is fast losing his memory, and he hopes to record his final case, which came to an unsatisfactory end some 30 years earlier, before time and his faculties run out on him.
It’s unsettling, the thought of Sherlock Holmes sliding into dementia, having to jot reminders (like the name of his Japanese host) on his cuff. A sympathetic doctor (played by Roger Allam) gives Holmes a diary, telling him to make a dot on every day that he forgets something; later we see the diary, and it has dots large and small on every single day. Mr. Holmes thus has an elegiac lion-in-winter quality to it, as we see the celebrated sleuth quietly raging against the dying of the light, trying to tease the details of that last unsolved case out of the depths of his waning intellect.
In this he is aided by Roger (Milo Parker), the young son of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and the scenes between Holmes and Roger are the movie’s richest and most rewarding, as the boy’s plain, honest admiration sparks the old man’s spirit.
Mr. Holmes time-hops to tell four parallel stories. The central one is Holmes in 1947. The secondary one is that old unsolved case, what Holmes’ late friend Dr. Watson might have written up as The Adventure of the Glass Armonica. In fact, Holmes tells us, Watson did write it, but as usual the good doctor fictionalized it and supplied a more satisfying ending than it had in real life.
The case involved a Mr. Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy), who consulted Holmes 30 years ago about his childless wife (Hattie Morahan); the husband feared that repeated miscarriages had unhinged her mind and driven her into the clutches of a phony spiritualist (played by Frances de la Tour). In the end, Holmes was unable to help, and it haunts him now; he must write the truth of it before the story is forgotten completely.
The third story involves Mr. Umezaki, who has ulterior motives for inviting Holmes to Japan. And the fourth concerns Mrs. Munro, who worries for her and Roger’s future when the day comes (soon, she fears) that Holmes is no longer around.
Condon and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler give Mr. Holmes a verdant glow in its Sussex scenes, a sharp-edged grimness when the scene shifts to occupied Japan and an autumnal crispness to Holmes’ memories of the Kelmot case. Virginia Katz’s editing weaves the stories together, infusing suspense beyond what each would have alone.
Towering over it all, predictably enough, is McKellen, playing Holmes both considerably older and younger than his own 76 years. Like the movie itself, it’s a quietly stunning performance, making the “gentle fiction” that Sherlock Holmes really existed stronger than ever.