As Sherlockians know, one of the great detective’s earliest (pre-Watson) stories (“The Musgrave Ritual”) was set in Sussex, as were some later tales penned by his faithful sidekick (“The Sussex Vampire” for example). And in 1903 Holmes retired to Sussex Downs to enjoy life as a beekeeper, although mystery intervened: In “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” Holmes must solve a case of strange horror, but he does so, not with his deductive genius but by his powerful memory (recalling a book he once read).
And so it is a great irony that director Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes portrays him as an aging recluse (played by Sir Ian McKellen), whose memory is seriously failing. Holmes is attempting to fill the role of his late friend Dr. John Watson by chronicling his own last case of many years ago. He struggles to remember its elusive details and to recall exactly why he cashed in his career for a life of reflection.
Some flashbacks give us the earlier, intense Holmes, and we even glimpse what he might have been like as a little boy in the person of Roger (Milo Parker), son of Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney). Roger is a super-bright, curious kid who hangs on Holmes’ every word and deed, and the detective is equally fond of him. Together they are the heart of the movie.
Mr. Holmes goes to lengths to overthrow Holmes stereotypes—like the ubiquitous “Sherlock Holmes” headgear (the deerstalker cap). That, he notes correctly, was the creation of an illustrator of Watson’s stories. And we never once hear the word elementary.
But the script errs when it tries to dismiss Holmes’ pipe by having him say he actually prefers cigars. In fact pipe smoking is central to the Holmes canon (i.e., the original narratives—4 novels and 56 stories—by A. Conan Doyle), as when Sherlock says of a matter needing much deep thought (in “The Red-headed League”), “It is quite a three-pipe problem.” (How this could look is described in “The Man with the Twisted Lip”: “In the dim light of the lamp I saw him sitting there, an old briar pipe between his lips, his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from him, silent, motionless, with the light shining upon his strong-set aquiline features.”)
Quibbles aside, Mr. Holmes is brilliantly conceived, skillfully directed, and superbly acted. You will be frightened at one point near the end, but you will survive to consider how Sherlock Holmes was always portrayed looking ahead (even when he was briefly in reminiscing mode). In Mr. Holmes, he is seen gazing backward so that his past is consuming his future. It is profoundly moving.
Rating: Three and a half wooden nickels (out of four)