Watching Ian McKellen struggle with age and his slowly diminishing mental faculties, including memory loss, in the lush but sparsely inhabited English countryside doesn’t bode for the biggest fun-fare at the cinema. But Mr. Holmes is a wonderfully crafted film, with a narrative that slowly grows on you and then holds on to you tight, till the very last frame. Based on writer Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, this is another rendition of the famous detective’s last few decades, as he recoiled to country living with his bees while giving up his mystery-solving career that made him the most famous detective in the world.
Ian McKellen comes together with his director Bill Condon, after they created solitary magic in Gods and Monsters. Here Mr. Holmes returns to his country cottage and to the care of his housekeeper Mrs. Monroe (Laura Linney) and her curiosity-filled firecracker of a son Roger (played superbly by Milo Parker). The primary occupation that Holmes keeps busy with is cultivating bees.
We encounter him at 93 years old, slowly succumbing to senility and a complete loss of his own self. His doctor hands him a little notebook, where he is supposed to note the days and things that he has begun to forget. The loss of memory notebook is marked with dots page after page. Holmes is struggling to complete a story he began many years ago, supposedly inspired by the last case of his career. His failing memory doesn’t allow him the ability to remember what really happened, so from one conjecture to another, he tries to join the dots with aide from his newest friend Roger.
Mrs. Monroe begrudgingly continues to do her duties, but is growing tired of the ingrate that Mr. Holmes is (he is really just a little difficult). She is contemplating taking a position in Portsmouth, where someone is starting a new hotel and has offered positions to both her and Roger. Roger for his part finds Holmes the perfect canvas for his curiosity. He can’t wait to read the finished version of Holmes’ story, while learning from him the sharp art of knowing what people really think.
Holmes and Roger develop a very fascinating relationship and the eighty years between them are a mere detail. Roger takes charmingly to learning how to cultivate bees. They both set out to investigate what’s causing an unexplained reduction in the bee population. Their relationship peaks when Roger is unfortunately stung by wasps who were nabbing the bees. As Roger struggles to stay alive, Mrs. Monroe blames Holmes for what happened to her son, only later realizing how the accident with Roger really occurred.
As Holmes goes back in time, trying to figure out the details of his story, his memory refuses to keep pace with life events. Somewhere mid-way through the movie, he looses physical balance and is restricted to his bed, for he can’t properly stand on his feet. Mrs. Monroe makes an ultimatum that she will be leaving as soon as he is back on his feet. Roger protests, for he can’t see his life being confined to following his mother’s footsteps.
The film subtly brings up discussion points that deal with aging and how the sharpest and most brilliant minds become helpless at the hands of time. The nuanced exploration of logic vs. emotion comes into play: while humanity has debated these two concepts for centuries, logic holds a primary position in Holmes’s repertoire. But the lack of an explanation for everything we know and that happens around us brings even Holmes to the conclusion that logic can go far, but not farther.
As Roger aids Holmes in his search, sifting through thoughts and memories in his memory bank, McKellen moves back and forth thirty years with ease and poise. I don’t think another actor would have been able to give this story the grace that McKellen does. He is flawless throughout the film.
The film emotionally tackles loneliness in the world where people like Holmes remain misunderstood, at best. Holmes is each and every one of us, who look around wondering if they can find someone to share this beautiful life and loneliness with. While Holmes rationalizes being alone as the downside of being blessed with intellect, his regret of not having accepted Ann Kelmot’s (Hattie Morahan), the bereaved wife of his final client, invite to share his loneliness with him leaves him deeply despondent. Martin Child’s production design is top notch and Tobias A. Schliessler’s cinematography poetically makes each and every frame a true labour of love.
Go watch Holmes for a stellar performance by Ian (Gandalf) McKellen (well supported by Laura Linney and Milo Parker) and how he is finally able to resolve the mystery behind the last case he ever worked on.
Mr. Holmes is now playing in theatres.