Mr. Holmes

Movie Information

The Story: A tale of the great Sherlock Holmes at the end of his life as he battles the loss of his faculties and tries to piece together the case that caused him to retire. The Lowdown: An absolutely beautiful film on every level. This is small work that feels anything but as it moves back and forth between eras and locations. Don't miss this one. It's definitely a captivating highlight of 2015.
Genre: Drama with Mystery Elements
Director: Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters)
Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Roger Allam
Rated: PG

Mr Holmes


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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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13 thoughts on “Mr. Holmes

  1. Edwin Arnaudin

    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.

    The throwback nature is one of the qualities that stood out to me. It’s nice to essentially have a film hit “reset” on what most modern releases are doing and show that focused storytelling and filmmaking can still be effective.

    • Ken Hanke

      It always astonishes me that people seem to forget that and seem to believe that all movies should be the same.

      • Edwin Arnaudin

        Part of that apparently involves people (and the Critical Industrial Complex) bashing a good number of filmmakers who don’t turn out homogenized work. It looks like most of the reviews thus far for Mr. Holmes are from British writers – many of whom have said nice things – so we’ll see what the rest of our countrymen say.

        • Ken Hanke

          Some of our countrymen seem to be upset that it’s not exactly a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Why anyone would go this expecting The Hound of the Baskervilles puzzles me.

    • Akina

      eee, ai prea multe pretentii. mie mi-a plcuat filmul. i-as da un 9/10 fiindca e dragut si mi-a facut seara mai frumoasa. o singura chestie am de zis: in rolul principal trebuia sa fie j. deep

  2. sally sefton

    I have read several reviews of this film and you, more than any other critic, captured the spirit and tenderness of the film If I were writing about it, even as an academic exercise, I would have found it challenging to discuss. There is an intimacy about the film that prevents me from even describing it to anyone. My shortcomings in gathering my thoughts on this film somewhat mirror the frustration of the aging Holmes as his mind starts to weaken a bit. I am feeling the impact of age and I am sure that is why this film lingers and haunts me hours later. I feel forever changed by this film.

    • Ken Hanke

      Thank you. Yes, the impact of aging almost certainly plays a role in how one responds to it. Once you’ve had moments where words you had in your mind slip away before you’ve said them or written them, or when you find what you once did in 30 minutes without thinking about it now requires an hour of intense concentration, a film like this plays differently.

      If you’ve never seen Gods and Monsters — or haven’t seen it in years — you should. It’s an excellent companion piece.

  3. T.rex

    Absolutely amazing!! It is such a joy to see a master at work and Ian McKellen is not the only great actor here. He, Laura Linney, and the young actor playing Roger are such a strong triangle. Films like this with strong directing, powerful acting and built on a strong script can really sweep you away and make you feel you have been on quite a journey. A must see for everyone! Lets hope the Academy honors Sir Ian with an Oscar. but I’m sure he is not worried about it. Awards are such petty toys to an actor of his caliber.

  4. sally sefton

    MR HOLMES is the biggest indie film in America this weekend, with cumulative box office over $10M now, and even more theaters in more cities. I don’t let a day pass that I don’t urge someone to see this.

    I am happy to see that people are finding their way to see this on the big screen.

    • Ken Hanke

      I won’t know what it did locally until tomorrow, but I noticed when I left the Irrational Man press screening at The Carolina this morning that it’s still in the theater’s biggest theater.

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