Near the end of the film, Mr. Holmes, Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) begins breaks down as he speaks with Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) outside of his English cottage as he coming to terms with his role in her son’s life and current predicament. It was a tearing down of the facade that has always been in front of this character. Not just McKellen’s interpretation, but the ones that preceded him and brought this character to life with such confidence that a pierce in the armor didn’t seem possible.
But in that moment, it did, and it was game-changing.
Mr. Holmes follows Sherlock as a 93-year-old living out his life in the English countryside after giving up his detective work years before. Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson are gone and he now lives a solitary life, outside of the time he has with his caretaker, Mrs. Munro and her son, Roger (Milo Parker). As the film begins, Holmes is just coming back from a trip to Japan where he spent time with Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), who was tasked with finding him a cure to his memory loss.
Holmes is trying to track down this cure because he wants to remember a specific story from his past — the case that put him into this retired life. While Dr. Watson wrote the original story, Holmes wants to set the record straight and write his own recounting of the tale.
Mr. Holmes doesn’t come from a traditional Sherlock Holmes story, but it feels very much like one with this character stooped in reality rather than creativity and fiction. Holmes feels like a real person (thanks specifically to the performance by Sir Ian McKellen, who gives every movement and facial expression for the character new life), but also because the film looks at a story that hasn’t been told yet — what happens to a great, adventurous mind when it must be retired and what forces it to go to that place?
Mr. Holmes has many touches of a classic Conan Doyle story, thanks to the flashbacks, that introduce us to the case that Holmes is trying to recount, but it also opens us up to the side of the character that we don’t know. It is interesting to see the unraveling of this figure who for so long as been perceived as this impenetrable force of intelligence and wit, that is able to put logic over everything and be a step ahead of the rest.
But in Mr. Holmes, he isn’t. Because of that, he is forced into retirement and to face the realization that no one, including himself, is a superhuman and we all make mistakes. He also has to come with terms with the fact that his actions have consequences on others and that just because he solves the case, it doesn’t mean that it was tied up neatly with a nice little bow.
McKellen plays the role with such quiet confidence because of his understanding of the nature of this character at this point in his life. He is sad because of his current status and is trying to desperately to solve that last mystery as a way to rekindle the lost flame that he is afraid died out years ago.
There truly is a difference between watching someone playing the role in a television show or series and watching someone like McKellen act. Not to say that the previous actors who have portrayed Sherlock Holmes do a poor job — quite the contrary — it shows how much more experience McKellen has and how far they have to go, much like me reading a Roger Ebert review after going over my own.
Mr. Holmes isn’t another Sherlock Holmes story, instead, it is an examination at the deterioration of someone’s gift and how coming to terms with that decay can be one of the hardest things someone has to cope with. But it also is a lesson in compassion and empathy, and is a reminder of how even the littlest things can mean more to someone (especially someone younger) than we would ever know.