There is some irony in the idea that one of literature's most famous creations is free to be embellished by any writer at any time. Sherlock Holmes first appeared in the 1880s, ushering in not only a new style of detective fiction but also a more sophisticated method of detection and crime solving. But copyright laws allow Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original works to be reprinted or repurposed by anyone who sees fit. Movies have cashed in, too, since all the titles and characters are in the public domain.
Mr. Holmes offers a slightly different and welcome twist on Sherlock. Decades after the Barry Levinson flick, "Young Sherlock Holmes," we finally get a film featuring the master detective at the end of his life. Not only that, but it is a Sherlock Holmes outside the Victorian era with which he is so intrinsically linked. The results aren't overpoweringly good but are better than the simplicity of the exercise might suggest.
In the aftermath of World War II, Holmes (Ian McKellen) travels to Japan in search of an herbal cure for his advancing senility. His brother, Mycroft, had passed away, leaving Holmes all of the fictionalized accounts of his work as written by Dr. John Watson. Holmes began to read through his case history for the first time and realized he can't quite place where the legend splits from reality in his final case.
The film splits into thirds to cover all of this ground. There is the much smaller piece in Japan; Holmes' reflections and foggy remembrances of the case itself; and his current life, a more physically feeble Sherlock tending to a bee colony in the English country. His housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son (Milo Parker) cater to the old man's needs, and the great detective has taken a shine to the boy, leaning on his youth to help him with his bee fascination and with gaps in the memory of his case.
The case itself, unfortunately, is fairly immaterial. It neither begins impressively or ends convincingly, but what else would you have Sherlock Holmes do in his old age but reminisce about his work?
Mr. Holmes is based on the novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind" by Mitch Cullin, and with its different narrative threads, unfolds like a novel. Realistically, the sub-plot in Japan could be sacrificed, but there is certainly something rewarding about seeing Sherlock Holmes walking through the ashen landscape of Hiroshima in 1947. The film reunites director Bill Condon with two of the best: He worked with Laura Linney in Kinsey and Sir Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters. It's evenly directed but Condon's presence is fairly anonymous.
There is really one surefire reason to see this film and it doesn't disappoint. McKellen, of course, needs no career overview here. He is so highly and rightly revered for his gravity, good humor and impeccable instincts, and he seldom lets down his reputation in any tangible way. That's what you get with his Sherlock Holmes. He does not embody the easy and prickly confidence of the detective that was embodied by Basil Rathbone in the 1940s. And it goes without saying that he is not approaching the role like Robert Downey, Jr. So McKellen gives you a lot of what you would expect as he inhabits the famous sleuth but he also gives Sherlock Holmes a vulnerability and likability that the character may have never had on screen before. It's an approach that outlasts a rather meager story, but you can't help but wonder how great this could have been if the mystery lived up to its end of the bargain.