Mr. Holmes (Bill Condon, 2015)
On a recent episode of WNYC’s Studio 360, actor Ian McKellen (best known, to mainstream audiences, for his roles as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings series and Magneto in the X-Men films, but also a very accomplished stage actor) stated that, ever since working with director Bill Condon on Gods and Monsters, he has always been prepared to say “yes” to anything that Condon might propose. And so we now find him starring as an aged (over 90!) Sherlock Holmes in the director’s new project. One can certainly understand McKellen’s attraction to the part – it’s such an iconic character, and what actor wouldn’t relish the opportunity to portray Holmes as his vaunted powers of deduction are fading? – and he most certainly does shine. It’s a shame that the movie, itself, however, is not better. Perhaps it’s Condon’s experience working on the final two Twilight films that have reduced his appreciation for complexity, or maybe the terrific Gods and Monsters was a one-off. Who knows? What we do know is that while Mr. Holmes offers a wonderful showcase for McKellen, it doesn’t offer much else.
Which is too bad, as the premise offers such promise. We meet Holmes in 1947, as he returns from a trip to Japan, where he had hoped to discover a cure for his memory loss. Imagine Holmes – the great detective – unable to hold on to the simplest of details, such as the names of the people he knows! He returns to his estate, to which he retired after World War I, after a tragic end to what would be his final case left him traumatized. Now he just takes cares of his bees, and is a burden to his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro – played by the usually reliable Laura Linney (Hyde Park on Hudson), who here, unlike her co-star, does not, sadly, shine – who wishes she didn’t have to play nursemaid on her meager salary. But she has a young son – played by the excellent newcomer Milo Parker – and the boy’s interest in what the famous, if decrepit, sleuth has to teach him provides a way in (or back) into Holmes’s memories, allowing the old man to finally solve the one mystery that eluded him. As I said, it’s a great premise.
Unfortunately, the story is told in an extremely heavy-handed fashion, with the director constantly underlining every single emotional beat. The flashbacks are clunky, and we see the truth of the failed case long before Holmes does. What works, however, is the marvelous interplay between the detective and his apprentice, and some great surprises lurk inside that storyline. I wouldn’t call it a complete wash, then – and fans of McKellen should enjoy – but it so often painfully misses its mark that we can’t help but regret the film that might have been.