THE great Sir Ian McKellen joins the ranks of Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch in Mr. Holmes, a relatively entertaining study of a much older version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth.
Set in post-war Sussex, the 93 year old Holmes is seen residing in his cottage with housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney with a thick Sussex accent) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker), killing time with his hobby of beekeeping.
With a memory nowhere near as impeccable as once was, his relationship with the Munros could not be more essential to him, even as his doctor hints that the likelihood of early dementia is all to see.
Holmes remains haunted by the outcome of his final case with his memory preventing him from learning for definite what actually happened, a potentially different scenario than what was published by Holmes’ long-deceased sidekick, Watson.
As a non-linear narrative, we see flashbacks from several decades earlier of a healthy Holmes accepting the case for a husband concerned about his bereaved wife’s suspicious activity. In real time, we see the young Roger playing as Holmes’ unlikely sidekick as the events that led to the outcome of the case are gradually revealed.
At the same time, the relationship between mother and son is detailed, specifically their opposing social attitudes which Holmes finds himself caught in between, hence playing in line with the film’s central theme of regret.
Such an element is crucial to the telling of the story as each of the main characters find themselves in a situation where past or present scenarios will create a burden, or at least a threat of such.
In one of the film’s better scenes, an argument where Roger criticises his mother’s illiteracy leads to an embarrassed Holmes demanding that he apologise straightaway if he wants to avoid the potential regret that will come with it.
This leads to a well-written monologue where she describes Roger’s father leaving his humdrum job to join the RAF during the war, passing all tests only to be shot down on his first flight, unlike his friends who returned home safely. By focusing on those around him, a seemingly reluctant surrogate family, the film succeeds at detailing the people situated around Holmes as well as that of himself.
A significant plotline later on involving beekeeping plays as a carefully written twist that demonstrates a clever expression of unexpected mystery and tension, a welcome storyline that works just as well as the mystery element does in the film’s flashbacks.
McKellen is really impressive to watch, with a combination of confusion, uncertainty and heartbreak from the real time Holmes balancing supremely with the contrasting energy, charm and elegance displayed vividly in the flashback sections. Early days remain abound, but one would appreciate seeing him given at least some consideration come next year’s BAFTA ceremony for recognizing the versatility of such a domestic performance.
The film does not go without its flaws. The narrative structure does initially come across as mildly complex, given the overt use of flashbacks that range from post-World War One London to a later sequence involving Holmes making a visit to Japan. By adapting this technique, the basis for trying to get into the film thoroughly is dented slightly by the frequency of the uncertainty at where the aims are stopping at. The lack of anything hugely entertaining for the first half of the film also shows that, while it pays off in the second half, it requires patience that might not gather reciprocation from some viewers.
Mr. Holmes not only works though as an interesting look at one of literature’s most beloved creations in a much older life stage, but also demonstrates why Mr. McKellen absolutely deserves his position as one of the most respected British actors around.