Sherlock Holmes’s best-known qualities are his deerstalker hat, his pipe and his unfailing intellect. None of these iconic flourishes are on display in “Mr. Holmes.” But in their place we get something more memorable: a lonely old man bedeviled by regrets and preoccupied with his legacy.
The year is 1947, and the 93-year-old Holmes (Ian McKellen) has long been retired. In the world of the movie, which is based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 book “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” Holmes is famous only because Dr. Watson turned all of their cases into popular books. The hat and the pipe were literary inventions. “I prefer a cigar,” Holmes admits, with a hint of amusement.
The old-timer spends his days at his English seaside home, hobbling around the house and irritating his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney, somehow managing to look dowdy), with frank observations that always cross the line into rudeness. Holmes isn’t what you’d call a people person, but he manages to forge a relationship with Mrs. Munro’s young son, Roger (Milo Parker).
The quick-witted kid weasels his way into Holmes’s heart, and before you know it the pair begins tending to Holmes’s bees together and setting up swimming dates.
Roger is also helping Holmes with one last case. The evidence has never been more elusive, because it’s all in the detective’s increasingly malfunctioning memory. His mind is his most prized possession, so seeing him fall victim to dementia — scribbling names on his shirt cuff so he doesn’t forget them, for example — is tragic.
Holmes is trying to remember the case that ended his career. He can recall the wealthy man who hired him and the sad face of the man’s wife, but the details are beyond reach. And going to the movies to see an adaptation of Watson’s book about the case is no help, thanks to the good doctor’s tendency to embellish. (Nicholas Rowe, the star of “Young Sherlock Holmes,” plays the title role in that film within a film — a nice touch.)
Directed by Bill Condon (“Kinsey”), the movie leaps back and forth in time, incorporating another thread involving Holmes’s recent trip to Japan in search of a rare plant to cure his dementia. Like any good Sherlockian case, the stories interweave into a satisfying conclusion. And the cinematic elements fit together as neatly as the plot lines. Carter Burwell’s music, combined with the film’s cloudy landscape shots (courtesy of cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, who worked with Condon on “Dreamgirls”) add to a sense of nostalgia. McKellen is impeccable as the aging investigator, who has always prized logic over emotions. And the young Parker holds his own in every scene he shares with his elder.
Their story is familiar — an old man and his protege — and it takes a predictably sentimental turn.
But the movie still stirs powerful emotions with its ultimate message: Brainpower and hard data may be valuable, but nothing is as precious as a friend.
PG. At area theaters. Contains some disturbing images. 104 minutes.