Sherlock Holmes is a character that needs no introduction in the western literary world nor in pretty much any other aspect of popular culture. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character is iconic from his deeply observant and deductive mind to his Deerstalker hat and pipe. But Mr. Holmes is a movie about a universe in which the famed detective exists as a real person known publically as his fictional persona created by his partner, Dr. Watson, for books loosely based on cases that they have investigated.
The film starts in 1947 with a long retired and very elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) coming back from a travelling to Japan. He is introduced while riding in a passenger train, sitting across from a young boy and his mother. The boy is looking at the window, focused on a bee settled on the outer side. “Don’t do that,” says Holmes to the boy. The boy looks at Holmes, understanding that this tired, old man with a hardened frown knew that he was going to tap the glass. Holmes reveals a reverence for bees as he explains to the boy about not intentionally harming the insect.
The rest of the opening credits follows the detective on his train ride back to his lone acreage near Sussex, but far enough away from any other residence. He stares out at the surroundings of buildings and farm land passing by with heavy eyes that have seen so much in 93 years, with a mind behind them that is incessantly busy with analysing every detail that surrounds him. His deep, almost exhausted-looking, thousand-yard stare and stone frown light up very subtly when he sees that he has finally arrived home.
It turns out that Mr. Holmes’ fondness for bees comes from his retirement hobby as a bee-keeper. It also turns out that he has a housekeeper whom is a Second World War widow (Laura Linney) with a young son named Roger (Milo Parker). Roger is very fond of Mr. Holmes and takes great interest in the real history of this legendary detective. On the other hand, Roger’s mother dislikes her job as the house-keeper and insists that Holmes needs a nurse, instead. His incessantly busy mind is in the early stages of failing him. Names escape his memory very easily and his doctor requests that he make a mark in a daily-dated journal every time he cannot remember a name. He even has Roger’s name written on his sleeve.
Holmes is at peace with the idea of dying, but he has a final mission to solve a 35 year old mystery that led to his retirement, and to write a factual account of it to correct his dear friend Watson’s liberties in the published account. As well as to ease his tormented soul with the real ending to this mystery before he dies.
He mentions to Roger that this is what he wants to do before he dies. Roger protests the idea of Holmes dying soon. After all, Roger becomes close to him by helping with bee-keeping, learning from his decades of wisdom, and ultimately sees him as a grandfather figure. “You’re not going to die soon…I had an uncle that lived to 102,” Roger says to Holmes. But, Holmes laughs and asks him the odds of knowing two people that live past 100. Roger responds optimistically by saying “I didn’t actually know him.”
Through memories uncovered, the narrative often jumps back to the post First World War era where Holmes and Watson are well known on Baker Street, and when this fateful mystery falls into the detective’s hands. And as more clues are uncovered, more of the past is revealed.
Sherlock Holmes is supposed to be an extremely logical and a deep thinker. In this movie, this version of Sherlock Holmes is a very deep, critical, and analytical thinker. Although Watson was his good friend, he really dislikes the books that he wrote and how Watson portrayed him. There is a part of the movie where Holmes remembers going to see a movie based on the book that is based on the unsolved case – but with an ending made up by Watson. He hates the movie and picks apart the story with his critical mind. Of course, the books that Watson wrote in the movie Mr. Holmes are the books that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in real life. And, unlike Sherlock Holmes in Mr. Holmes, Doyle was not a critical thinker nor was he a rational person. He was very deep into pseudo-science and spiritual mumbo-jumbo. He was even taken in by the Cottingley Fairies story. I couldn’t help but think that the movie is, itself, a criticism of the Sherlock Holmes novels.
Whether or not you like Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s irrelevant to this movie. Sir Ian McKellen is mesmerizing in this role and it’s hard not to feel like Roger in his admiration and care for the elderly Mr. Holmes. This might not be the #1 highlight of McKellen’s career, but it certainly should be on the list. The audience’s attention is captured from the beginning on the train and is held until the emotional conclusion. Bill Condon’s direction is excellent and the motion of the narrative is seamless with a close attention to detail, as should be expected as a complement to the title character’s precise eye for details. The cinematography is gorgeous. It complements the fantastic set design and brings out the gorgeous environment of Mr. Holmes’ house and landscape.
But, again, it’s Sir Ian McKellen’s show. His performance forces the spotlight onto him. It’s not a mindless summer movie, and it’s a mystery that is very worthy of going to the theater for.