Sherlock Holmes is a character so beloved he’s been brought back from the dead. First by fan fiction, then by his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. We’ve seen in him comedies, period pieces, and modern-day settings, be they hospital procedurals (House), or quirky crime dramas (Elementary, Sherlock). But have you ever wished to see this charismatic crime-stopper old, senile and defeated? Really?! Oh. Well, then you might quite like Mr. Holmes.
Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, the drama stars Sir Ian McKellen as the iconic detective. His casting suggests McKellen’s trademark sass would be brought to brighten Sherlock’s signature snootiness with great comedic effect. But the laughs in the script are of the schmaltzy variety, made soggy by many maudlin moments and a looming reminder of the adored figure’s mortality.
Yes, Holmes is dying. His friends are all long dead. And his mind is going, which he might argue is worst of all, as it impedes Holmes from solving the last great case of his life. 35 years before, a man came to him about his wife’s strange behavior. Watson was gone by this point, and Holmes bungled the case. Now, it haunts him as his fading facilities fight him in figuring it out. Sound grim? It is. But a precocious child is pitched in to lighten things a bit.
To Milo Parker’s credit, he’s a charming presence, even when his character Roger is being a bit of a shit, embarrassing his housekeeper mother in front of her employer, Holmes. Roger and Mr. Holmes develop a friendship, bonding over beekeeping and the latter’s attempts to capture on paper what went down in that catastrophic case so long ago. Their scenes together are sweet, but get lost amid the three-thread shuffle. Mr. Holmes doesn’t just want to tell this tale of friendship and the case of the curious housewife. Also wedged in is the uninspired mystery of why Holmes recently traveled to Japan.
Director Bill Condon has previously won acclaim helming such insightful dramas as Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, both biopics based on men who tackled taboos in their work. But maybe too much Twilight saga has hurt Condon’s touch for subtlety. The screenplay demands one of our greatest living actors to recite his thoughts and motivations aloud, like bellowing, “I must finish with (this case) before I die!” Similarly, the film’s big plot twist is foreshadowed so heavily that its reveal is insulting to those who admire Holmes’ eye for minute details. Sadly, the performances share this ham-fisted approach.
I can’t recall a time where I have ever before thought, ‘Damn, McKellen’s laying it on thick here.’ And in another admission that hurts my soul, Laura Linney is downright disappointing as the hardnosed mum and minder of Roger and Holmes respectively. Her big monologue about her late husband comes out of nowhere, and the rest of her role is just frowning with distaste and concern as this cranky, dying man dares to be kind to her kid.
Things get even wonkier as we go into flashbacks. For one thing, Holmes repeatedly tells us 35 years have gone by, and yet McKellen plays him both then and now. More jarring though are the performances that seem to be from totally separate movies. As a worried husband Patrick Kennedy is a caricature of impotent rage. Frances de la Tour (who you might remember as the large and in charge Madame Maxine from Harry Potter) is a cartoon come to life, though admittedly amusing. But these farcical figures conflict with the tender melancholy Hattie Morahan offers as this doomed wife. I wish every performer in Mr. Holmes were on the same page with her. It would have made for a much richer, more moving movie.
Instead, this is a dullsome drama that only offers flashes of fun. It wants to say something profound about life, loneliness, grief and regret. But Condon and his cast bungle it, offering instead the kind of sloppy sentimental shtick that plays best when you’re only half-paying attention. It’s a damn shame. The premise of fate being so cruel that it would steal the wits away from Sherlock Holmes just when he needs them most is a captivating—albeit disturbing—one. We were pumped about it. But in execution, it’s a morose mess, littered with bits of cheap levity.
All in all, Mr. Holmes reminded me of a strange sketch in the comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look. Bear with me. The show is normally a collision of pop culture references used to make satirical points, or silly observations. But one episode ended with an aged Watson visiting his homebound Holmes. This great man, this great mind was reduced to a frightful, confused shadow of his former self. And even as the laugh track tried to assure the audience that this was okay, that it was even funny, it’s not. It’s too heartbreaking. (“I know, John. I do know.”)
Where this goofy bit beats out Mr. Holmes for me is that it managed to show the futility of our flesh and the bittersweet realization of life’s glories in just five minutes, where the movie takes 20 times that long to do the same, and less articulately. Mr. Holmes further wounds us by blithely invoking the names of Holmes’ old friends—from Watson to Mrs. Hudson, to brother Mycroft—just to confirm they’re dead and gone. Worse yet, it’s a bit torturous to watch not just Sherlock but our beloved Sir Ian struggle with the indignities of old age. But if nothing else, at least the drama gives us a moderately happy ending. I guess that’s something.