With Mr. Holmes, filmmaker Bill Condon returns to the greatness of Gods and Monsters (1998) and Kinsey (2004). It is also one of the very best films of the year to date — maybe even the best, but let’s not go there just yet. This is a small film, an intimate work, in almost every particular, yet it never feels small. Rather, there’s something expansive about its flashbacks — both real and imagined — despite it being a small scale work. It is almost the anti-summer blockbuster, and while I expect it to appeal strongly to the more discerning moviegoer, it’s not going to be any kind of world-beater hit. But it doesn’t set out to be. It sets out to be a first-rate piece of filmmaking built around an intriguing “what if” premise.
The “what if” premise here is what might have happened if Sherlock Holmes (a wonderful Ian McKellen) actually did retire to Sussex to keep bees? In this regard, the film makes an almost perfect companion piece to Gods and Monsters, which also starred McKellen. In that film Condon posed a possible answer to the mystery of the death by drowning of retired filmmaker James Whale (the man who made Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein). Both characters are watching their mental faculties melt away and both are haunted by their pasts. The difference — apart from the fact that Whale was a real person and Holmes a fictional character — is that Whale knows what’s haunting him, while Holmes is trying to figure out what it is.
Mr. Holmes is set in post-WWII England and starts with Holmes — at 93 — returning from a trip to Japan in search of Chinese prickly ash (found in the ruins of Hiroshima no less), from which Holmes is hoping to distill an herbal treatment to aid his failing memory. His efforts at correcting this — or at least staving off its inevitability — with royal jelly have come to nothing. But something more happens when he returns. He deduces that young Roger (Milo Parker) — the son of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) — has been in his private study (“my sanctum sanctorum”) in his absence. It’s innocent enough. The hero-worshiping boy had been secretly reading the story that Holmes had been writing and had hoped to find out how it ends. The problem is that Holmes would like to know that, too, and has been trying to call it to mind. Large chunks of the film consist of flashbacks — some possibly real, some imagined — to this final case that drove him into retirement. At one point, Holmes even goes to a cinema to watch a film version of the story (with Nicholas Rowe from 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes playing Holmes). But that isn’t the answer either.
This is only one of the plots in the film, however. Others — ranging from what is causing mass deaths among the bees, what his Japanese host (Hiroyuki Sanada) is really up to, and most importantly, whether or not Mrs. Munro will take a job in Portsmouth and leave the increasingly feeble Holmes — take up the rest of the film. But it should be noted that this gentle, almost unassuming film is really more about Holmes the man. It doesn’t set out to debunk the myth created by Dr. Watson, but it constantly reminds us that those stories and the Holmes contained in them are hardly factual. (Holmes, however, is gracious enough to regret not having brought along his deerstalker, since it would have made his Japanese host’s mother happy — something that makes you wonder if he really didn’t wear the thing after all.)
This is not part and parcel of the business of rethinking Holmes that’s been going on at least since Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). This is something else again — a sweetly sad imagining of the real man, of his thoughts and feelings. And it does this without recourse to the usual “woman in his life.” Instead, it’s about a man in his final years finally opening himself up to his own feelings and those of other people. This is simply a beautiful and tender character study. It’s rather old-fashioned, I suppose. Nothing blows up. There are no car chases. But I think you’ll find it offers much, much more than that. Rated PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.