Like that other Victorian fictional creation Count Dracula, Sherlock Holmes is clearly a character for whom the world has a bottomless appetite. There are presently two television series updating the “consulting detective” to modern times, a film series with Robert Downey Jr. whose third installment may or may not happen, and any number of one-off appearances. Being out of copyright clearly has something to do with it, but so is Dr. Henry Jekyll, who has popped up in films and TV less than 100 times compared to more than 300 for Holmes. (How did film reviewers ever get by without imdb.com to count this stuff for us?)
This version, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, offers us Holmes in his late years. It stars Ian McKellen and was directed by Bill Condon, the same team that in 1998 essayed another late-life tale, that of filmmaker James Whale in the Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters.
We meet Holmes at 93, frail but still mobile, returning from a trip to Japan where he gathered a supply of prickly ash, rumored to help the memory. His is failing; he has to resort to surreptitiously writing the names of people with whom he is conversing on his cuffs.
Not that that’s something for which he has too much need. It is nearly 30 years since he retired to a cottage in the country to raise bees. Dr. Watson, seen here only momentarily, from the wrists down, has been out of his life for almost as long. The great man’s needs have been tended by a series of housekeepers, the latest of which is a war widow: Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney).
She has a young son, Roger (Milo Parker), whose interest in Holmes’s fame and abilities is the beginning of a bond between them, one that causes the old man to examine his withdrawal from the world. This takes the form of writing a memoir of his last case, whose details elude his failing memory.
Mr. Holmes plays out on three stages: in 1947 at his country cottage, slightly earlier in Japan, and 1918, where we see the case that led to Holmes retirement. It’s a complicated canvas for what is in the end a fairly simple story, Holmes’ fear that he has no understanding of the human heart. The use of the devastation at Hiroshima to form a small sliver of this is, to put it mildly, overkill. The film is a shaggy dog story that does a lot of work to get us to someplace fairly simple.
Baker Street irregulars determined to seek out all things Sherlockian will find enough to amuse them. Like many “new” to Holmes, this one seeks to gain our trust by letting us in on the “fictional embellishments” found in Watson’s scribbling. (Deerstalker hat? Ridiculous! 221B Baker Street? A canard to keep the tourists away.) And even hidden under pounds of make-up and doddering more than he needs to, McKellen turns in a touching performance. Mr. Holmes may not entirely fit into your image of the mythical detective’s inner workings; if not, you probably won’t have to wait long for another one to come along.