It’s hard to say exactly how many times an iconic character can be approached before they simply start to stale from overexposure. It doesn’t matter if it’s a legend that has been told since the beginning of time, or a new IP gracefully leaping from tale to tale. Eventually, they all get old. Mr. Holmes seems hyper aware of this, deciding to turn the potential weakness of having two currently running Sherlock franchises into it’s greatest strength, by aging it’s hero by as much as his appeal has likely aged for us. Fortunately for this detective, it seems as though he ages as gracefully as a fine wine.
We find former detective Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) returning from a trip to Japan, to his quiet English home that he shares with his housekeeper Mrs. Monro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes has been attempting to keep his analytical mind sharp by beekeeping, but he finds himself fading. As he tries to write the story of his final mystery, which resulted in his retirement, he finds his memory of it fading to his great frustration. In fact, he finds that his main motivation to not give up entirely is his relationship with young Roger, who as it turns out is pretty intelligent in his own right. As such, the two start spending a lot of time together, much to the dismay of Mrs. Monro, who wants to prepare Roger for leaving Holmes behind.
Mr. Holmes is perhaps purposefully understated compared to it’s BBC and Warner Brothers counterparts. It’s not so much a mystery tale, as it is a character study of the smartest man in the world as he starts to fade away. How gracefully can one age when everyone expects them to consistently remain at the top of their game? Watching this dilemma is fascinating, thanks in no small part to yet another masterful turn by the seasoned McKellen. He utterly encapsulates the intellect and dry wit that has made Sherlock Holmes such a beloved figure, while adding an additional touch of sweetness that many versions of the character simply don’t have time for. After all, he’s a man humbled by a decaying mind, and as such can only really remain one step ahead of his fellow man, as opposed to six. It’s a performance that could very easily garner McKellen an Oscar nomination, and stands as some of his finest work.
Also greatly aiding the proceedings are Linney and Parker, who pitch perfectly bring their opposing mother/son dynamic to life. Parker in particular is a live-wire for an actor his age. Roger starts to demonstrate some of the extraordinary traits as Holmes, but the movie never tries to make him a prodigy. He’s just a smart kid who still has a lot to learn, and since Holmes has a whole lot to teach, the dynamic remains an absolute pleasure to watch throughout. Meanwhile, Linney brings more of an icy sweetness to Mrs. Monro, as she tries to sabotage the boys’ growing bond to the point of irritation, while still making it clear that all of it is out of love for her son.
Director Bill Condon of ‘Dreamgirls’ and ‘Gods and Monsters’ crafts his finest film in years with a light touch that gives off a sentimental energy while never getting too syrupy. He does a particularly wonderful job with several short sequences that have no dialogue at all, merely focusing on Holmes as he tries to deal with his fading memory. He lets McKellen breathe and perform rather than over-dose these sequences with imagery and symbolism, and the performance comes off all the stronger because of it. He does however let things run a little long, with a few too many flashbacks and side stories throwing off the momentum of the pace. It’s not awful, as the film still comes in at about two hours and five minutes, but perhaps at an hour and fifty, it would have been just perfect.
A refreshing break from the non-stop action extravaganzas that have taken over the summer, Mr Holmes is a wonderfully assembled swan song to one of literature’s greatest heroes, with McKellen only further cementing his legacy as one of the finest actors of our time. It has fun with the mythology of the character, while giving us a take on him that has never been done before. While Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch will almost certainly continue to carry the torch from here on out, if the world went up in flames tomorrow, I for one would be perfectly fine with this being the final Sherlock Holmes adventure.