Ian McKellen seems to be making his way through literary icons. He's played Gandalf in six films; he's the definitive Magneto (sorry Michael Fassbender), and before all that, he was Richard III. Now, he can add Sherlock Holmes to the list as the lead in Bill Condon's restrained, drawing-room sized mystery Mr. Holmes. And restrained is definitely the word here, but not always in a bad way.
The film opens with a 93-year-old Holmes returning to his secluded country home from a trip to Japan, where he absconded with a prickly ash plant, which is said to help those suffering from memory problems. Holmes is quickly losing his faculties and his independence, a fact that weighs heavily on his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney). With the help of Munro's son Roger (Milo Parker), who is fascinated by the stories he's heard of Holmes' cases, Holmes hopes to write down the details of the unsolved case that made him retire from the detective profession before his memory completely abandons him.
Mr. Holmes is a curious little movie. It's a mystery with no real immediacy and a character study with little depth outside of its protagonist. That's not to say it's bad. Far from it. Director Bill Condon knows what he's doing—the man even made the Twilight series momentarily exciting—and Ian McKellen never turns in a subpar performance.
That being said, there's a restraint (there's that word again) that works both for and against the film as a whole. To call the film's dramatic arc muted is total understatement. The film unfolds slowly and casually, with most of the plot happening in flashbacks to Holmes' last case and to his trip to Japan, both of which are rather hermetic in their scope and reach. Neither one informs the other, nor do they have connection beyond Holmes himself, but both are still vital to the narrative set in the present day.
However, that same restraint helps to keep the characters and setting organic. McKellen's performance feels well-worn and familiar, as if he'd been playing Holmes his whole life. He draws from an intentionally laconic palette, letting Holmes exist naturally in the landscape of the film. In fact, a running theme is how different Holmes is from the character of Sherlock Holmes that people known from the published stories (which in the film were written and heavily embellished by Watson under a pseudonym).
With the focus squarely on Holmes, the supporting cast often gets hedged out. Laura Linney does well as the unpretentious and practical Mrs. Munro, but she still ends up feeling a little bit wasted, existing as she does on the narrative's periphery. A dramatic twist in the plot revolving around her feels slightly forced, as if the screenplay had to give her something to do to justify her presence.
However, that could be a reflection of the paternal relationship that grows between Holmes and Roger that has her feeling excluded in her son's life. Roger is a bright, inquisitive boy who rebels against his mother's working-class ethic, and idolizes Holmes for his reliance on logic and intellect. Milo Parker is an extremely nuanced actor for a child his age, and he has the face that could easily be an innocent or a bully, or even both at once (and all three aspects come into play at some point). He never feels precocious or twee, simply natural and realistic.
The real mystery at the center of Mr. Holmes isn't his unsolved case, the particulars of his trip to Japan, or the relationship between Holmes and Roger. The real dramatic tension arises when Holmes tries to recount the case to write the facts down. The question isn't “What really happened on that case?” but “Will Holmes be able to remember it before his faculties leave him?” When Holmes gets frustrated by his fading memory, it engenders near immediate audience sympathy and a bit of tension when we realize that we might NOT actually get to find out what happened on that case after all.
In the hands of any other director and any other lead actor, this film might have fallen victim to a kind of airless, Miramax “prestigious novelty” factor. With Condon behind the camera and McKellen in front of it, however, it becomes an engrossing portrait of the man behind the character of Sherlock Holmes, even if the narrative at times feels a bit shallow and constrained. You may never have to leave the drawing room for this mystery, but at least that room is tastefully and beautifully decorated.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B