Re-writing the Sherlock Holmes canon has long been a pastime for filmmakers and other storytellers; in fact, the Great Detective’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, even did it himself, undoing a 1893 “fatal” plunge over the Reichenbach Falls in 1901 so there could be more Holmes stories to the benefit of both the public and Doyle’s purse. “Mr. Holmes,” like many other new-school riffs on Sherlock (see also Laurie R. King’s “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” mystery novels), takes place in his later years after his retirement.
Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” and adapted by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, the film is set in 1947, as England recovers from WWII, and a 93-year-old Holmes (Ian McKellen) lives in retirement in Sussex with both his mind and body failing at the end of a long life. As Holmes’ memory grows more and more uncertain, the best-known detective in the world is faced with solving the greatest final mystery of his career: What’s happening to him, and what’s to be done?
Director Bill Condon and star McKellen have worked similar terrain in 1998’s “Gods and Monsters,” where McKellen played the real James Whale, director of “Bride of Frankenstein” and other classics. As Holmes, though, McKellen gets to make a meal of his performance — strong and resolute in flashback but feeble and frail in the film’s present day — even as he spins familiar Sherlockian cliches until they’re dizzy. McKellen’s Holmes never wore a deerstalker hat, and as for his infamous pipe? “I prefer a cigar,” he notes with an apologetic shrug.
There’s a lot of to-do about a 1917 “Last Case” that sent Holmes into retirement, as well as Holmes’ interactions with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (a harried-but-heartfelt Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker), who keeps pumping Holmes for more stories from his colorful past. The film is a mix of detective skullduggery and more dramatic and emotive moments, with only the occasional jump or jolt of disconnection as the film moves between unraveling the long-forgotten case prickling at Holmes’ mind and the here-and-now concerns of his aging body.
The film leaps locations, time periods, places and styles, whether Holmes is surveying the blackened wasteland left after Hiroshima or sneaking into a theater playing a fictionalized version of his own exploits. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (“The Fifth Estate,” “Hancock”) gives what must have been a small-scale production a big, epic look and feel that still finds space for nuances and smaller moments. Carter Burwell’s score also sets the mood appropriately, with the film’s long, loving shots of the fields, forests and shores of Sussex also aiding the film substantially. Credit is also due casting director Lucy Bevan for finding a supporting cast that includes familiar (but not too-familiar) faces like Frances de la Tour (McKellen’s co-star on TV’s “Vicious”) and Roger Allam in small but key roles.
Ultimately, “Mr. Holmes” feels a little too interior and small-sized to fit the big screen as fully as one might hope; while every Holmes saga doesn’t need the snappy zip of the BBC’s updating or the boom-and-doom of Guy Ritchie’s Robert Downey, Jr.-led take on the character, the undeniable fact is that there’s a lot of longeurs and pauses in the pacing here that sap some of the energy from the film as it winds its way to the end of the many mysteries Holmes has to either resolve or cope with.
Still, after his recent string of what feels like too many comic-book blockbusters, social-media memes and chat-show appearances, it’s nice to see McKellen in a role that actually demands — and rewards — his acting abilities; “Mr. Holmes” may not be the biggest or boldest recent updating of Sherlock, but McKellen’s performance alone is almost reason enough to see it on the big screen.