by David Robinson, Movie Reviewer
Now available on video, “Mr. Holmes” runs a number of changes on the traditional movies about the British sleuth. It’s a slow, charming movie, rather old-fashioned in its assumptions about what will please an audience. There’s no sex, though there is a love story; no violence, though one person dies and another nearly does; and wonder of wonders, not a single car chase. Adapted from Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” the film is rated “PG,” but it will likely appeal to an older demographic in any case.
In that, it markedly differs from more recent Sherlockian adventures starring, among others, Robert Downey Jr. For this one, Holmes is 93 and 30 years retired from the detecting business. Living on an estate in the fictional seaside town of Cuckmere Cross, Holmes has for company only his war widow housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her precocious young son, Roger (Milo Parker). His avocation is beekeeping, the details of which he is passing on to the eager boy, his mother’s tight-lipped misgivings notwithstanding.
His other principal endeavor, as he nears the end of his life, is to write down the story of his last case — the one that caused him to end his career. The challenge he faces is reconstructing what actually happened, as opposed to the fictional version created by his friend, the late Dr. John Watson. (The distance between the actual and the fictive Holmes is a recurrent theme, often played for quiet laughs, though it’s no laughing matter to the elderly detective.) Attempting to boost his memory, he has traveled to Japan — specifically the bombed-out Hiroshima — in search of prickly ash, a mnemonic aid, to augment his old standby, royal jelly.
Director Bill Condon shifts the action back and forth in time as Holmes puts together the pieces of the case involving Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), whose husband (played by Patrick Kennedy) has come to doubt her sanity and intentions following her two miscarriages. Holmes shares the manuscript with the admiring, inquisitive Roger, creating another tie binding the two together and doubling the suspense. Screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher neatly dovetails the two plot lines, underlining the contending appeals of logic and imagination in facing life’s mysteries.
The 76-year old McKellen is masterful, especially in capturing Holmes at two such different stages in his long life, a trick of posture and gait more than makeup. Linney is solid in a demanding role as his resentful, uneducated housekeeper, and young Parker is a treat to watch as a kid both annoying and compelling in his fractious intelligence.
The script could probably have done without much of the Japan subplot, though it ultimately lends poignance and depth to both the themes and the character of Holmes. “Mr. Holmes” unfolds slowly, beguilingly: predictably, it badly lost the box-office battle to the noisy megahits against whom it opened last summer. It helps to know a bit about the Holmes stories, literary and cinematic, but the movie stands nicely on its own, particularly for those who like to look carefully for clues, a la Sherlock.