The character of Sherlock Holmes has often been used by other authors, so much so that different Holmes stories have become a cottage industry over the years. Along with hundreds of lesser works, in the 1970s there was Nicholas Meyer’s excellent “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” – the title referring to how Holmes took his cocaine as related in Conan Doyle’s original stories. Recently Holmes has been bigger than ever outside of print media, with two theatrical features starring Robert Downey Jr. as the detective, as well as the contemporary CBS series with Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) recovering from his addiction in New York City. Best of all though is the BBC version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson that comes closest to recapturing the feel of Conan Doyle’s original stories. But mixed in with these is a small gem that’s now available to stream or on DVD: Mr. Holmes.
It’s 1947, and Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellan) has been retired for years, living on the coast of England where he keeps bees. Watson has predeceased him, as has Mycroft. Holmes is attended to by his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), who lives on the property with her son, Roger (Milo Parker). After years of astounding people with his brilliant deductive powers, Holmes is now faced with early-stage dementia. He’s drawn back to his final case, where a husband (Patrick Kennedy) asks Holmes to investigate his wife (Hattie Morahan). Holmes can’t remember what happened during the case and why it caused him to give up detective work. At the same time, he finds that young Roger is very much a younger version of himself.
The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, from the novel by Mitch Cullin, has flashes of Sherlockian mystery, though the main thrust is a fascinating character study. McKellan is brilliant as always, here portraying a man who realizes he is slowly losing himself but who determines to fight his way through the night that’s encroaching on him. But along the way, he finally connects with his human side. Linney submerges herself in the role of Munro, so much so you’ll forget she’s wasn’t born in England. The surprise, though, is Parker, who delivers a nuanced and prickly performance with a surety that one doesn’t usually see in a person so young.
The movie puts Holmes in some interesting situations. A sub-plot deals with his final long trip out of England, where he goes to Japan shortly following the end of WWII – including a stop at a memorial for the dead in Hiroshima. In pursuit of information about that last case, Holmes attends a movie theater to watch an adaptation of Watson’s story about the case, though his finds it of little help because of Watson’s penchant to embellish Holmes’s investigations. The central focus though is the relationship between Holmes, Munro, and Roger, and it leads Holmes to solve one final mystery.
While we think of Holmes rooted in gaslights and hansom cabs in 1890s London, Conan Doyle actually set the scene for this movie. He published the final Holmes story, “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” in The Strand Magazine in 1927, the same year he gathered together the last dozen stories into the collection “His Last Bow.” It includes two stories that are narrated by Holmes himself, “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane.” “Lion’s Mane” features Holmes in retirement on the coast of England, solving the death of a teacher at a nearby preparatory school. Mr. Holmes actually plays off of that story to an extent.
Those who’ve discovered Holmes through the Cumberbatch incarnation may not enjoy Mr. Holmes, for it has more of a melancholy, reflective feel rather than sharp, brisk wit of the BBC TV series. But for those who have lived with Holmes for years, it gives a satisfying resolution to one of the greatest characters in literary fiction.