In 1998 director Bill Condon and actor Ian McKellen collaborated on Gods and Monsters, an intriguing tale of Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale. It won Condon a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar and McKellen a nomination for Best Actor. Now they offer us Mr. Holmes, again adapted from a novel (A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin) and again presenting an intriguing premise, but this time, come awards season, I think only McKellen will be in the running; his performance, rather than the screenplay (or direction) is the chief pleasure of this rather dour, melancholic film.
It’s 1947, Sherlock Holmes is 93, and his memory is starting to desert him. He’s been retired from the crime-solving game for thirty years and now tends bees in a country house in Sussex, attended to by a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes is desperate to maintain – indeed, to stimulate – his memory just long enough, and with enough power, to remember and write down the particulars of his final case. He’s forgotten why he retired, he’s sure that it’s to do with that case, and he wants to remember.
The mystery that follows – told in flashback – is not nearly as fine as most “real” Holmes stories, and that’s a shame; if it had been a humdinger, this movie may have been very special indeed. Likewise, the meditation on ageing and memory loss is moving but not particularly illuminating; there are plenty of other movies that deal with it more interestingly. Most of the film takes place in the present, and the main relationship is between 93-year-old Holmes and young Roger, to whom Holmes is teaching the art of beekeeping. The dramatic conflict, such as it is, involves Holmes remembering his final case and the fear of his housekeeper leaving him (and taking Roger); neither is gripping.
But McKellen is playing Holmes, and McKellen is wonderful. He rises above the film’s singularly melancholic tone by simply bringing his astonishing palette. For one scene (and one scene only, which is a great shame) we see the sixty-something Holmes delivering a trademark deductive monologue with such brilliant wit, elegance, speed, precision and power that it shows Benedict Cumberbatch a thing or two. I would love to see another one of these, that dispenses with the old Mr. Holmes, and just lets McKellen play Sherlock at his own age, because he is obviously in the prime of life and the very height of his powers.