Often, you may find yourself remembering a film for entirely different reasons than the one that attracted you in the first place. With Mr. Holmes, you come for the high concept of Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in his old age; you stay for the smart, alluring dialogue between truth and fiction in screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of a 2005 novel by Mitch Cullin.
Mr. Holmes is directed by the very uneven but always attentive Bill Condon, reuniting with Mr. McKellen after the film that put him on the map as a director, 1995's Gods and Monsters (and rebounding from the underwhelming The Fifth Estate and two hack-for-hire Twilight Saga films). It's a piece of non-canonical Holmesiana, disguising a layered, thoughtful meditation on memory and perception as a stock British period drama.
The key premise is that the "real" Sherlock Holmes, had it existed, not only outlived his chronicler but would have had only a passing resemblance to John Watson's literary creation: the man himself calls his old friend's writings "penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style". And yet, in his forgetful retirement near the White Cliffs of Dover in the post-WWII that is the story's present day, an ill, aged Holmes, out of his depth and out of place in the modern world, ends up holding on to those stories as the reason to go on living as he loses his memory to an unnamed, Alzheimer's-like disease.
The film's most singular concept, and its central mystery, is the "adventure" the wizened Holmes sets upon himself to unravel: the motives of his own retirement to a sleepy village, 30 years earlier, after one final case, slowly pieced together from the shards of his elusive memory as a story he is writing to "set the record straight" and show the "real" detective that didn't come through in Watson's stories. Yet, that story is being read as Holmes writes it by the curious Roger (Milo Parker), the young schoolboy who is the son of the housekeeper widowed in the War (an unexpected Laura Linney) - and in so doing, the "record" that is being "put straight" is also being altered, both in Roger's head and in Holmes' unraveling mind.
For a man who prided himself on having no use for imagination and sticking to the facts, the inability to remember or to place correctly a face, a body, a detail becomes the most terrifying of all possibilities. And Mr. McKellen plays that dread of losing one's identity regally, in a delicately articulated, always smarter-than-it-seems performance. In a particulary smart touch, Mr. McKellen also differentiates effectively, and wonderfully, between three different incarnations of the character in three different eras. Beyond the "present-day" 1947 Holmes, there's also a more sprightly and alert 1917 Holmes working on what he didn't at the time know would be his last case, recollected in flashbacks.
A somewhat superfluous side plot features the third Holmes, traveling through Japan shortly after the end of the war in search of prickly ash, a "magic herb" that might awaken his failing memory. While this side of the film is probably surplus to the central narrative's requirements, it is important to its conceit of a Holmes literally left behind by modern warfare and modern times, of a man out of time and out of step with what the world has become.
At no point does Mr. McKellen ever break the illusion: his Holmes is always a man aware that the world expects something of him, who ended up retiring from the public eye, even if he didn't realise it himself, to maintain that image and those expectations intact. The film tells his story in a manner that is at once respectful of and faithful to the approved canon of Holmes stories and its more literary variations.
For all intents and purposes, Mr. Holmes is a vehicle for a great actor at the peak of its powers; though slickly, soberly told, it confirms Mr. Condon is essentially an actor's director with little to none visual personality (despite a few very nice touches by DP Tobias Schliessler). But when the story is this intelligent and the actor this good, it's more than enough to just appreciate a performance supported and respected by the film that it's in.
United Kingdom, USA, 2015
Cast Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Tanada, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Hattie Morahan, Phil Davis
Director Bill Condon; screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin; cinematographer Tobias Schliessler (widescreen); composer Carter Burwell; designer Martin Childs; costumes Keith Madden; editor Virginia Katz; producers Anne Carey, Iain Canning and Emile Sherman; production companies AI Film Production, BBC Films, Archer Gray and See-Saw Films in association with Filmnation Entertainment
Screened July 17th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening