“Mr. Holmes” examines an aging and human hero in his last years
Our favorite heroes are always frozen in time. Superman perpetually saves Lois Lane from a falling helicopter. James Bond stirs his martini and watches the villains from across the room. Indiana Jones is always on the cusp of trading an idol for a bag of sand. When we return to our favorite films, the action is happening just as it always has. These are the rules of fiction. Nothing happens in the past tense.
Seldom do we give thought to what happens later, when the adventures are over. Not many of us wonder about the amount of time Captain America has to spend at the Social Security office or where the Incredible Hulk buys his pants. The nature of adventure stories does not lend itself to such questions.
But if life has taught us anything, it’s that everything ends. At some point, Batman will hang up his cape, Doc Brown will tinker with the lawnmower, and Sherlock Holmes will tend to his apiary. “Mr. Holmes” tells the story of the end of things. It is a slow, ponderous look at the downfall of every great hero— time and senescence.
Sherlock Holmes is a legend, recognizable and famed in his own time. He is remembered well through the writings of his partner John Watson, and though Mr. Holmes has no great love for fiction, the embellished but revered exploits earlier in life have provided for a quiet retirement in the English countryside.
Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson are long gone. His only contact with the outside world comes from his housekeeper, her young son, and his doctor, who asks him to keep track of the number of times he forgets a name or a place. Holmes has recently returned from Japan, where he sought out a plant called prickly ash said to treat and reverse the effects of senility.
Yet, even with his slippery and unreliable memory, Holmes has not lost his keen sense of observation or his eye for deduction, even if it is now reduced to nothing but a parlor trick. At 93, Holmes appears to be a shadow of the man he was, and he is desperately trying to remember his last case, so that he can set the record straight on the facts and rediscover for himself what led to his 35-year exile.
While it is impossible to have a Sherlock Holmes story without a mystery, “Mr. Holmes” has an approach that is altogether new. Here, Holmes is not fighting against a grand enemy bent on testing the superior intellect of the world’s most famous detective. Instead, he is raging against the failing of his most powerful ally—what once was a steel trap has now rusted shut, with many of his most powerful memories locked inside.
His deduction skills are useless against this foe. He cannot observe the past any more than he can postpone his final scene. His recollections return in flashes, at inopportune times. However, even in his advanced age, Sherlock Holmes is no transcendent and ethereal being. He learns that an unconditional devotion to logic might be at odds with the kindness needed for true intimacy.
There is no better actor to portray these notions than Sir Ian McKellen. His honesty and skill are essential to the storytelling. Additionally, Laura Linney and Milo Parker are both well cast for their story, and each gives a strong performance that allows McKellen to expand fully into the role. But it is writing and pacing, and the steady hand by director Bill Condon, which allows the film to carry the weight it needs to be effective.
The film rightfully discards the manic energy of “Sherlock” showrunner Stephen Moffet, telling the story with a slow and deliberate gait that is adroit in both its handling of the character and the story it wishes to tell. The audience is given an exclusive look into the mind of a post-WWII Sherlock Holmes—there are hints at a deep and profound effect the war has had on both the country and their greatest hero.
This film is not a typical summer movie by any stretch of the imagination. But if you’re looking for a break from superheroes and special effects, you might consider this one. Character-driven narratives are rare during the summer and “Mr. Holmes” is a welcome departure.