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A Case of Memories

Giles Keyte/Roadside Attractions

Mr. Holmes (2015)

With so many adaptations and interpretations of Sherlock Holmes on and off the page, and with the character so ingrained in popular culture, it is a remarkable achievement to come up with a story that feels fresh. Most recently and notably, there have been two Robert Downey Jr. films with the character, the British TV series “Sherlock” and the American TV show “Elementary,” so there would appear to be enough of Holmes on screen to satisfy eager fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation. However, the arrival of “Mr. Holmes” proves to be a worthy and significant new screen depiction of the great detective.

Based on “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” a novel by Mitch Cullin, this new film imagines an elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) trying to come to terms with his diminishing memories. In the late 1940s, Holmes has left London for the quiet English countryside and occupies his time by beekeeping, with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker), for company. However, something is gnawing at Holmes, a hazy recollection of a mysterious woman which spurs him on to uncover an important incident from his past.

With its focus on the memory of an inscrutable woman in Holmes’s life, the plot of this film evokes the central story in the Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond classic “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.” While “Mr. Holmes” may not be as broad in scope or as labyrinthine in plot as the Wilder-Diamond film, it is still a tantalizing and poignant look at a figure out of his time in post-World War II Britain, and who senses that time is running out. In addition, “Mr. Holmes” feels like a companion piece with “Gods and Monsters,” also directed by Bill Condon and starring Mr. McKellen, with both films focusing on a noteworthy figure in the latter years of his life.

While this is a melancholic tale that sifts through the fading memories of the meticulous sleuth, the seriousness is often leavened with humor, particularly in the lively exchanges between Holmes and Roger. Also, a subplot involving Holmes traveling to Hiroshima to meet Matsuda Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), a Japanese man who may be able to help the detective retain his mental faculties, develops in an unexpected way. Aside from this overseas journey, the story is predominantly set in the country, with locations mostly alternating between the dimly lit interiors of Holmes’s house, where he flashes back to key events in his life, and the bright rural exteriors, which offer a tranquil respite from the complications in his past.

While Holmes has always been a fascinating character, he is often depicted as an arrogant and remote individualist, indifferent to the feelings of others, and, Dr. Watson aside, unconcerned with companionship. It is fascinating to see an older Holmes in this story without the usual supporting characters of Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade. Also, the story of an aged, weakened Holmes allows the filmmakers to probe a more emotional, vulnerable side to the detective that is rarely seen. This does not feel like a betrayal of the character, though, simply because aging is a condition to which every viewer can relate. Showing a frailer side to Holmes feels credible here because of the time and circumstances in which he finds himself.

Mr. McKellen is an ideal choice to play Sherlock Holmes, bringing the calm, calculated personality of Magneto and the wise, paternalistic aspects of Gandalf to his rendering of the famous detective, while adding a more emotional side that fits with the character’s age and condition here. Ms. Linney seems to struggle with her English accent in places, but she succeeds in showing the stress that Mrs. Munro faces in having to care for both Holmes and her son, and the resolve needed to survive. Mr. Parker rounds out the main cast as Roger, capturing the precociousness of a child who possesses a burgeoning curiosity, qualities that are welcomed and encouraged by Holmes.

Fans of the famous detective in cinema will doubtless be pleased to see Nicholas Rowe of “Young Sherlock Holmes” fame portraying a silver screen Sherlock in this film, with Mr. McKellen’s Holmes sitting in a cinema audience and looking wryly on at the unflappable fictional version of himself. This is more than just a wink to Sherlock Holmes cinephiles, though; it triggers a key memory for Holmes. Indeed, “Mr. Holmes” is concerned not just with aging, but also with fiction versus reality, where a carefully manufactured image covers untidy, unsettling truths. In this cinematic era of costumed heroes, Mr. McKellen depicts one of the most famous fictional characters without the recognizable accoutrements of the deerstalker and pipe, perhaps the clearest indicator that this moving and memorable film is a rare peek behind the curtain at the feelings of this enduring icon.


Opens on June 19 in Britain and on July 17 in the United States

Directed by Bill Condon; written by Jeffrey Hatcher; director of photography, Tobias Schliessler; edited by Virginia Katz; music by Carter Burwell; production design by Martin Childs; costumes by Keith Madden; produced by Anne Carey, Iain Canning and Emile Sherman; released by eOne (Britain) and Roadside Attractions (United States). Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. This film is rated PG by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Ian McKellen (Sherlock Holmes), Laura Linney (Mrs. Munro), Milo Parker (Roger), Hiroyuki Sanada (Mr. Umezaki), Hattie Morahan (Ann Kelmot), Patrick Kennedy (Thomas Kelmot) and Nicholas Rowe (Matinee Sherlock Holmes).


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