The game is afoot in Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes, and it’s a game as tired and apocryphal as such a phrase being credited to Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle had no more control of the phrases and details his most famous creation would appropriate than he did the maddening popularity of the character. Like the great detective himself, any studied follower of the Holmes short stories and novels can separate the facts from the hearsay. Mr. Holmes has some fun as a mini-exegesis on what does and doesn’t belong in the Holmes canon, but makes for an otherwise humdrum addition to that canon on its own terms.
After two rounds with the teenage offspring of cinema’s most popular character, Condon’s interpretation of another silver screen regular has an intriguing setup. Adapted from Mitch Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” Mr. Holmes tells the story of London’s most celebrated consulting detective during the twilight of his years. By the 1947 in which much of the film takes place, Holmes (Ian McKellen) is over the hill and well past his gaming days. It’s a unique situation for the character, even if it’s one that’s perhaps reflective of a wider cultural need to tear open every last chapter in a fictional person’s life as though it were a Christmas present.
Retired to a small country home in Sussex, Holmes is tended to by Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her precocious son, Roger (Milo Parker, a fine enough young actor who will probably end up a Spider-Man one day). Given what retirement looks like, Holmes might have been better off ending it all with a trip over the Reichenbach Falls, as Doyle once intended. Returning to Sussex after a brief trip to Japan (which we witness through intermittent flashbacks), Holmes seems content to spend his last days doddering over his beehives, same as he has for the 35 years since his last case.
Ah, but that final mystery had a niggling quirk to it that haunts Holmes: he can’t remember how it ended. Because of the creative license John Watson took when repackaging their adventures as dime novel entertainment for the hoi polloi, Holmes can’t trust the popular account of the matter. All he can recall is that the case involved a mourning housewife, a water harmonica, and a bitter end worth abandoning the detecting business entirely. With some egging on from Roger, Holmes undertakes his final investigation: The Case of the Forgotten Case.
The smartest thing Mr. Holmes does is not treat the age of the character as a hindrance to the story, but rather the jumping off point, and entire reason for it. While franchises the movie world over are working around the limitations of expiring stars, Condon’s Holmes looks and carries every one of his 93 years of experience. In a performance that leaves you relieved to remember he’s only in his mid 70s, McKellen is at-times discomforting in his ability to convey the way that time will diminish the body and ego of those once sharp and lively.
Shame the film surrounding him is also drained of these same qualities. Even with multiple timeframes to keep track of and the knowledge that all three will tie together neatly, as any good Holmes tale often will, you’ll be hard-pressed to find much to latch onto in Mr. Holmes besides the lead performance. Condon, whose last teaming with McKellen earned the former an Academy Award, abandons what flair he put into 2013’s The Fifth Estate, retuning to statelier, performer-first shooting that needs the surrounding frippery of a musical to make any impression louder than a dull roar.
It doesn’t help that Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay calls increasingly for capital-A acting from McKellen the more the mystery contorts itself into being about Holmes’ flat relationship with the Munro family, and not his own past. The cleverest, and most thoughtful moments play Holmes’ public and private identities against one another, with Holmes having learned over the years that indulging some preconceptions is much easier, and sometimes kinder than correcting them. That tension between fact and fiction leads to one surprisingly bold resolution later on, but its impact is muted by sleepy domestic drama that too often stops the sleuthing cold in its tracks.
“I never had much use for imagination,” Holmes tells an acquaintance at one point, which seems accurate. The revisionist affectations added to the Holmes mythos exist because they create a character more distinct than the one Doyle only needed to assemble a puzzle. Sherlock Holmes is a storytelling utensil that Mr. Holmes mistakes for the richest vegetable in the stew, peeling back the skin in search of substance that’s not here. All the more reason, then, to enjoy Mr. Holmes for what it is: an excuse for an old pro like McKellen to flaunt his own talents. Unlike Holmes, the rest of us are limited by realities that the public domain can’t solve.
McKellen's performance will likely be the only evidence worth remembering of Mr. Holmes' existence.