Just how many Sherlock Holmeses can the world sustain at once? We’ve got the Robert Downey Jr. action hero version and the Benedict Cumberbatch Aspberger’s take. And now we have a senior and somewhat senile interpretation of the perennial sleuth portrayed perfectly by the classically trained yet suddenly everywhere Ian McKellen (X-men, Lord of the Rings.) Personally, I think we should all be grateful for this embarrassment of riches. Three very different Sherlocks and all such fun to watch! This time around, the mystery dear Holmes must solve involves his final case, decades prior, before he moved to the Sussex seaside to raise bees all by his lonesome. It is the case that drove him to retire.
When we meet Holmes, he is 93-years-old and just back from a trip to Japan to procure a plant that is rumored to help with fading memory, a serious affliction for a man who was known for his razor-sharp mind. It is 1947 and he’s found the plant in the ruins of Hiroshima. Back at his country house, watched over by his widowed housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), he tends his bees and forges a friendship with Mrs. Munro’s curious 12-year-old son Roger (Milo Parker), who becomes his Watson, pushing him to remember and write down the facts and timeline of his last case. The story of that case is told in flashback and gives a vivid counterpoint to the doddering old detective. 30 years earlier, Holmes was still the famous celebrity sleuth and was hired to follow a young wife who was suffering after losing two babies to miscarriage. While he was able through his keen intellect to understand the facts, it was his inability to understand human feelings that led him to the wrong conclusion, and at his advanced age and from a distant remove he is finally able to see why.
Mr. Holmes isn’t really about the case. It is about Holmes’s late in life understanding of human frailty, his own but also the people around him. The story itself is not twisty and turny like most Sherlock Holmes stories. It is quiet, maybe too quiet for some I suspect, but as inhabited by Ian McKellen, it is a beautiful story of coming to terms with oneself. It is gorgeously shot, and the small cast is quite wonderful. Expect to see Milo Parker a lot more. It probably isn’t for the Robert Downey Jr. crowd, but I suspect the Benedict Cumberbatch fans will appreciate it. It has a very BBC/Masterpiece Theater feel.