Editor’s Notes: Mr. Holmes is currently out in limited release.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s singular creation, Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first “private consulting detective,” has enjoyed unprecedented pop-culture success across not one, not two, but three centuries. Holmes made the jump from the printed page to the theater stage early on in his pop-culture career. Soon thereafter, he debuted on film – most famously essayed by Basil Rathbone – before appearing on radio, television, and back again, a cycle of seemingly never-ending recreation of Doyle’s work and creation via literary and non-literary pastiches, up to and including Holmes’ most recent interpretations on film, Robert Downey Jr.’s faux-Brit-accented, steampunk, action-hero iteration (surprisingly still one entry shy of the obligatory trilogy), and on television, Benedict Cumberbatch’s career-making turn as a self-described “high-functioning sociopath,” and fellow Brit Johnny Lee Miller’s tattooed, recovering substance-abuser, New York City-dwelling incarnation (edgier superficially, but far more sympathetic and empathetic than Cumberbatch’s).
Condon and his screenwriter, Jeffrey Hatcher, lean heavily away from the mystery plots that drove Conan Doyle’s stories and novels and toward the character studies typical of biopics and indie dramas.
Each take has its fans and detractors, some more so than others, but they each share one key factor in common, a still relatively youthful Holmes still at the peak of his genius-level, deductive powers. Mitch Cullin’s well-regarded, 2005 novel, “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” took another approach altogether, a Holmes nearing the end of his life, his health deteriorating, his faculties fading, his memories waning. Cullin also gave readers an elderly Holmes not just grappling with his mortality, but with an exaggerated, sensationalized reputation created by his sleuthing partner and longtime chronicler, John Watson. When we meet the long since retired 93-year-old Holmes in Bill Condon’s (The Fifth Estate, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Dreamgirls, Kinsey, Gods & Monsters) adaptation of Cullin’s novel, Watson has long since passed on from this mortal realm, he exists only in Holmes’ memories and in the embroidered, exaggerated stories and novels he penned.
Reteaming with Ian McKellen, an actor he directed to an awards-nominated performance in Gods & Monsters almost two decades ago, Condon and his screenwriter, Jeffrey Hatcher, lean heavily away from the mystery plots that drove Conan Doyle’s stories and novels and toward the character studies typical of biopics and indie dramas. Though Mr. Holmes involves three mysteries of varying complexity and significance, only one, the case that Holmes couldn’t solve or resolve, thus ending his career as a private consulting career, can be described as a Conan Doyle-level mystery. Even there, however, the mystery centers less on narrative twists, turns, and revelations, but on something greater and deeper, on human personality and identity in all its complexities and contradictions, the kind of mystery that can’t be solved through deductive reasoning and logic.
Though Mr. Holmes involves three mysteries of varying complexity and significance, only one, the case that Holmes couldn’t solve or resolve, thus ending his career as a private consulting career, can be described as a Conan Doyle-level mystery.
Holmes’ self-perceived failure compelled him to leave London for a country cottage and beekeeping, self-imposed isolation from the world around him, including the Second World War, but living alone isn’t an option, forcing Holmes to accept a live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her preternaturally bright, preteen son, Roger (Milo Parker). While Holmes’ often expresses condescension, even contempt for the uneducated Mrs. Munro (a trait shared by both Conan Doyle and Cullin’s character), he dotes on Roger, engaging in the kind of knowledge transfer typical of a grandfather and his grandson. Their relationship offers Holmes the proverbial second chance at a family, but it also functions as a restorative or curative, however temporary, for Holmes’ persistent memory loss. Holmes claims he simply wants to recall the now semi-forgotten details of his last case, to chronicle them the way Watson once did, albeit reflecting an unembellished, if still subjective truth (Holmes’), but it’s also clear Holmes’ attempts to recover one memory, one case, is also an attempt to retain a semblance of his identity. (“Who are we if we no longer have our memories?”).
The other mysteries, one involving Holmes’ dwindling bee population and the other a brief journey to post-war Japan to obtain “prickly ash,” a rare plant with restorative powers, specifically memory, feel perfunctory, even obligatory. In Cullin’s novel, the bee-related mystery results in a downbeat ending, but in Condon and Hatcher’s restructured third-act, it’s something else altogether. It might be blasphemous to even suggest, but Condon and Hatcher’s resolution works better both emotionally and dramatically. The other mystery makes more thematic sense (about the comforting lies we tell ourselves and others to survive and thrive) than narrative sense, but ultimately that’s a minor counter-argument against Mr. Holmes’ strengths, from its thematic depth, to an excellent, top-to-bottom cast, and to Condon’s able direction. Condon’s direction might be too slow for some, too contemplative for others, but it offers many rewards, including watching a generational-best actor like McKellen bring Conan Doyle’s character to three-dimensional life.
Condon’s direction might be too slow for some, too contemplative for others, but it offers many rewards, including watching a generational-best actor like McKellen bring Conan Doyle’s character to three-dimensional life.