‘Mr. Holmes’ a bittersweet look at the legend

mr holmes

If I actually get around to writing all of this, the blog will seem very Sherlock-centric for a while. I’m reading a Sherlock Holmes book now – the second in a row – and I’m mightily tempted to watch some early “Sherlock” episodes on Netflix.

And then there’s “Mr. Holmes.”

I didn’t know quite what to expect from the Bill Condon film, starring Ian McKellen as an older, retired Sherlock Holmes, and I haven’t read “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” the 2005 book by Mitch Cullin. I had an impression the story was about a mystery deep in the retirement years of the world’s greatest consulting detective.

Holmes’ retirement years have been fertile ground for writers, most notably Laurie R. King, whose “Beekeeper’s Apprentice” books featuring Holmes and Mary Russell, his younger love interest and deducting equal, have thoroughly explored this world in a dozen books.

(I can’t help but wonder if writers like King aren’t ticked off when they treat an idea with such care and originality and see others’ treatments get turned into movies.)

“Mr. Holmes” unfolds in 1947, when 93-year-old Holmes – long after the death of everyone important in his life, including his brother Mycroft and companion John Watson – is living in his house in Sussex and keeping bees. His only companions are his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Holmes, in failing health, struggles to remember the case, decades earlier, that prompted him to quit detecting. WIth some prompting from Roger, he remembers the bittersweet circumstances. The realization affects him in a couple of ways, including his dealings not only with his surrogate daughter and grandson but with a Japanese businessman who seeks answers that only Holmes can provide.

If you’re expecting a version of Holmes that’s like the aging astronauts of “Space Cowboys,” that’s not what Condon’s movie is about. It’s a low-key affair, more bitter than sweet, about a legendary figure fighting with the loss of his greatest tool: his mind.

But it’s also about how Holmes, notoriously aloof and superior, comes to realize – too late, tragically so in one instance – that the need for companionship is felt by everyone. Even him. The bitter realization, played out in one of the film’s flashbacks, stems from a moment that seems out of the blue but is ultimately understandable.

McKellen is wonderful, of course. We’ve seen so many decades of good work from him that we shouldn’t be surprised that he can play at least three different versions of Holmes here – at his deductive peak, at his most confused and vulnerable and at his saddest as he realizes what might have been and attempts to solve the mystery of his life.

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