“One should not leave this world without a sense of completion.”
Ian McKellen’s Sherlock Holmes ruminates on the meaning of life near the end of “Mr. Holmes” with that gentle declaration.
It’s that sense of gentleness — more precisely, gentlemanliness — that permeates Bill Condon’s latest film, a story within a story within a story, in which the super sleuth is retired and retiring. Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” the film juxtaposes the “real” Holmes with the fabricated detective penned by his erstwhile partner, Dr. John Watson. In an amusing turn, Holmes spends a good deal of the film debunking the myths of Baker Street.
The story begins in 1947, as a 93-year-old Holmes is headed home to his beloved Sussex coastal estate. He is, we soon learn, returning from a trip to post-war Japan, where he has been in search of the elusive prickly ash plant, a type of leafy green that may aid with the debilitating effects of age-related memory loss, something he is desperately battling (the illness is never specifically defined beyond that, but it’s clear what lies ahead for Holmes). Ironically, the plant is only found amid the ashes of Hiroshima, a memory not even Holmes’ failing mind can erase.
At his home we meet his housekeeper, the widowed and matronly Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney ), and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker, who steals nearly every scene he’s in), an endearing and precocious ‘tween whose father has died in the war and who develops a strong bond with the grandfatherly Holmes. Their quiet scenes together are marvelous, as the elderly Holmes imparts his wisdom on the lad who clearly has an affinity for sleuthing (he “broke into” Holmes’ locked study while he was away), and for beekeeping, the last great pleasure in the old man’s life. Or it would seem.
The story within THAT story revolves around Holmes’ last case, some 35 years earlier, one which Watson made famous in a novel (another of the “penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style,” Holmes muses) and whose ending, Holmes insists, is incorrect and must be righted. If only his memory will serve him long enough to write the tale as it truly happened. The tale involves a mysterious young woman, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) who has suffered two miscarriages and finds the pain too unbearable to live with. Her husband employs Holmes (now 35 years younger, in flashback) to follow her as she spends her days (he thinks) feigning lessons in theglass armonica, an odd musical instrument believed to contain otherworldly powers. Has she gone mad amid her heartache? McKellen and Morahan share one of the film’s most tender scenes as they talk of loneliness and despair, and the love that only the truly lonely can comprehend. I won’t reveal what ensues, but she is the reason Holmes retired, we learn, amid a sorrow that is truly palpable.
The third tale centers on Holmes’ visit to Japan, involving a Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his father, who may (or may not) have encountered Holmes years earlier during the war. The scene in which Holmes secretly etches Umezaki’s name on his shirt cuff so as to remember it is a tearjerker indeed.
It’s just one more layer of the mystery that shrouds each of the tales separately and the movie as a whole. Seamlessly interwoven by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, the tales are peppered with smartly strewn clues across time and continents; fans of Holmes (literary, film or television) will find all of it an irresistible journey,framed by Tobias Schliessler’s luxurious cinematography.
McKellen is brilliant throughout, his piercing blue eyes revealing the gallantry of youth and the sadness of a life’s worth of memories slipping further away. His understated and charming approach to the role makes it all the more potent and engaging. His prowess at sustaining the stateliness of a 60-year-old British gentleman and the debilitating limitations of a nonagenarian is a remarkable study indeed.
I began this review with Holmes’ observation about “completing” one’s life, and the film graciously ties up each loose end, just as a great detective must do in order to truly solve the case. But for Holmes, completion is not an ending, but a beginning. It’s about freedom, from the sadness of the past and, in some ways, that sadness which is yet to come. Holmes is no longer a myth, he is a man. He is complete.
Roadside Attractions and Miramaxpresent a film directed by Bill Condon and written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin. Running time: 105minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking). Opens Friday at local theaters.