Mr. Holmes – directed by Bill Condon

Writer Jeffery Hatcher (TV) adapted “Mr. Holmes” from the novel, “A Slight Trick of the Mind” (2005) by Mitch Cullin. Based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Cullin creates a conglomerate of what Sherlock Holmes would be at the end of his life – ninety-three years of age, the setting shortly after the war in 1947. Condon mostly keeps the camera at a polite distance, giving the aging over to Ian McKellen’s power to portray. While the makeup is quite convincing, mostly McKellen’s careful precise movements to play a man convincingly seventeen years his senior give the film its strength. Since he is the focus of the film, most of his scenes involve mannerisms that if not performed correctly, would resemble some feeble attempt at senility. Instead, McKellen carries the day and brings us into Holmes last days with all the suspension of disbelief we need to keep our attention riveted. Like so many actors of his generation, I would say McKellen – along with Derek Jacobi – are last great actors from a golden age of Shakespearian stage actors who bridged their craft to film.

The first third of the movie shows Holmes in repose. He returns to his country home after a long and arduous journey to Japan. World War II has just ended and Holmes seeks an allusive cure to his memory losses with herbal medicine. The mysterious box he carries contains a seedling from which Holmes must derive his memory preparation. He has one last case to solve. As his memory slips away, so does his ability to work out the details of the case. He has one ally in the form of young boy – Roger (Milo Parker), son of the housekeeper – whose keen intellect prods Holmes into remembering details of the case. Laura Linney plays the housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (the fourth outing with director Bill Condon). She is suspicious of Holmes interaction with her son. She constantly spies on them – watching them through the window as they work together on the beehives. Roger’s fascination with Holmes derives from his love of the stories. He breaks into Holmes’ study and reads the notes Holmes makes on this last case. More than anything, Holmes’ fading memory troubles him most as senility creeps into his life with evermore occurrence to point he writes people’s names on his sleeve. As a person in their sixties, I found it easy to identify with that problem. However, I was never good with names.

As the film progresses and Roger prods Holmes, the detective recalls more of the case and writes down additional notes to complete the story. He and Roger form “a gentlemen’s conspiracy” against Linney who seeks another position just to remove her child from Holmes “harmful influence.” Holmes influence over her son agitates her until she lashes out in anger at both of them. At this point in the film, the writer and director could take us in a direction of spite. Instead, “Mr. Holmes” delves into the root of Sherlock’s malady that plagued his relationships with people and overshadowed his personal life – lack of empathy. This is the core of “Mr. Holmes” and comes into full fruition when a crisis involving the boy, the mother, and Holmes’ past meets at a critical juncture.

Ian McKellen is not only an outstanding actor, he conveys every meaning and subtle nuance a screenplay could not. That is the value of a great actor. Between the words on a page are a gulf as wide as a great canyon. Actors can bridge that rift with illumination given the right circumstances and director. “Mr. Holmes” is a tour de force of acting with a powerful emotional climax and a must see for all fans of the greatest detective fiction ever produced. Laura Linney and Milo Parker complete this trio of acting triumph in telling the last story of Sherlock Holmes. Many great artists have created this wonderful tale – not just the script, the acting and direction, but the photography is seamless, the makeup of Holmes undetectable, the setting and scenes authentic, the period costumes flawless and the sound/score in perfect harmony for the film’s purpose.
I began to wonder how my attention remained riveted with such a banal setting when the obvious became as illuminating as one of Holmes’ deductions. Talent will out.

Tony Scott's take: